September 4, 2013

Book: ‘Turf Wars’ takes on Louisville and lawn-mowing

‘Turf Wars’
By R. Barker Price. E.T. Hutchings Co.; 307 pgs., $11.95.

So often, the tales of corporate-finance shenanigans are totally concerned with what happens in NYC … maybe venturing as far away as the Hamptons. And it’s infrequent that an author writing fiction about an industry will bother with an actual product that gets used with sweat and grease. (It’s so much easier to have the drama turn only on character dialogues about clean and dry MacGuffins like pharmaceutical breakthroughs and Silicon Valley vaporware.)

Thankfully, Louisville author R. Barker Price is having none of these trends in his new novel. The setting is here in town — actually, it’s well distributed in recognizable places all over town. And his product is “well-grounded,” too, if you don’t mind a pun. The subject at hand is commercial landscaping and the industry that produces those high-power ride-on mowers. Regularly enough, Price (who’s had success with teleplays as well as novels) can get his tale of corporate backstabbing, clashing generations and shirtless lawn-mowing studs to sing on the page.

That’s not to say that “Turf Wars” is great literature. The scenes flow seamlessly and with a knowing rhythm that makes for a fast-moving reading experience no matter what absurdity or character cliché might occasionally provide filler. In other words, this is a solid summer/beach read with enough differences that it merits consideration.

Price’s protagonist, John Oleman, is dealing with a career crisis that shows up before he’s ready to retire. Planning and executing the next steps in life requires the 50-something to deal with a real-world assortment of strained relationships — plus some business matters that may accelerate into something desperate. Oleman seems to stand in for the author through incidents that bring up themes of transparency in communication, second chances and especially age discrimination. Even though the author positions and explores a younger man who might want to work beside Oleman, there are scattered instances where adverbs and descriptions of “youth vs. experience” could’ve benefited from a more delicate hand. (One example: “There were a few kids, too, twenty-something free spirits who dug the music, but probably missed the meaning altogether.”)

A careful hand at editing might’ve also showed the author that he describes at length every significant part of each attractive female character. He doesn’t completely shrug off the attributes of the men in his tale, but there’s a clear imbalance. The handling of locality — setting, that is — shows Price making much better choices. The attention to local detail — in intent, if not in consistent depth — is more than admirable: It’s warm and makes scenes vivid. (Somebody loves you, Gen. Castleman!)

For the most part, the author seems to have an effortless way of getting a reader involved in the connections of not-ready-to-be-crusty old friends, regretful-but-warm spouses and the burgeoning romance of two young hotshots licking their first career wounds. So it’s a slight surprise as well as a disappointment that the primary villain seems on the verge of tying the nearest innocent to the railroad track and twirling his mustache (admittedly not likely, since the villain’s female).

Enjoy this book for its light pace and relaxed pleasures, as well as some decent local flavor and some high-quality, breezily handled quirks. On balance, these come out way ahead of the few tired and disappointing elements.