There are a select group of, usually, female writers I turn to in times of crisis, in times of desire, in times of need, woe, loss, hope. These authors include Alison Gaylin, Alafair Burke, Alex Marwood, Megan Abbott, Lisa Lutz, and of course, Laura Lippman. Laura Lippman often stands in a category by herself—she is both the leading writer in transgeneric literary mysteries, but also a powerhouse who generally puts out a book a year—flawless books, beautiful books, books that always end with emotional punches that are eye-opening in startling ways. Other than perhaps Lou Berney and Daniel Woodrell, I find very few male authors approaching Lippman’s league. And do not get me wrong, this review is not a love letter to Laura Lippman. This is a love letter to Dodging and Burning, the brilliant, impeccable debut by John Copenhaver. John Copenhaver, who may or may not eventually become the male equivalent of the heretofore unmatched Laura Lippman.
I was hesitant in beginning this book. OK, that may be a lie. I was eager to start this book, after reading Kristopher Zgorski’s review at the end of 2017 in his year-end review. The book features strong female characters, complicated homosexual relationships, and as Copenhaver himself has recently pointed out to me, a challenge to the patriarchy. There are love triangles, or what might be perceived at first as love triangles, but really, just as in real life, love is much more complicated than it first appears. There is mystery, and intrigue, as one character points out to the two female protagonists that he believes he has found a body (and taken a photograph) of a deceased—really, murdered—woman, somewhere in Virginia.
Whatever your expectations for this novel are, put them aside. You will not be able to predict a single twist or turn to this book. You will also, likewise, not be able to put it down, just as I read it all in one solid sitting—a long sitting, as it’s not a short book, but a delicious, amazing, startling book. Copenhaver balances both a beautiful, poetic style written in many forms (narrative, epistolary letters, among other forms and styles of writing) but Copenhaver never once sacrifices story for style. They are balanced perfectly equally, satisfying everything the reader feels he or she needs in this volume that is too slim for my liking. I wanted more.
This novel has taken Copenhaver years to write, and what an unfortunate note for readers. We will have to wait years more for another book from Mr. Copenhaver, potentially, but that is O.K. by me. There are enough twists and turns, jaw-dropping shocks and surprises, that I do not believe I will ever, ever get tired of Dodging and Burning. This is a book that will never cease to surprise you with its turns and revelations, no matter how many times you breeze through it—and there is a danger in this, the ease with which one can breeze through Copenhaver’s writing without really, truly appreciating it. Copenhaver’s style, his story, his everything is meant to be savored, like a delicious meal—a last meal, on death row, one you might never have again. It needs to be appreciated as such.
The fatal flaw in this book is that it is only one book, one volume. The fatal flaw is that there is not more to appreciate in Copenhaver’s irresistible story and style. It is endless, how fascinating his words are, his characters and their actions, their voices and their thoughts and their yearnings. They come to life on the page. They come to life like no other author I can think of—other than the grand, remarkable, equally undeniably unmatched Laura Lippman.
Perhaps they should start a club.