Book review: ‘My Patch of Bitter Earth’

“My Patch of Bitter Earth” is part murder mystery, part morality play and part Wall Street thriller; as such, it’s a smooth, fast read that is hard to put down.

This third book from local author Martin J. Hula starts out with a bang, as protagonist Ike O’Reilly loses his wife and son in a car crash; the recovering hard-drinker had succumbed to temptation and was boozing with buddies when he should have been helping his family navigate the icy roads.

After this, Ike’s life quickly falls apart, and he winds up homeless on the streets of Detroit; but one night, just as he’s reached his lowest point, he comes into possession of a mysterious cellphone that allows him to overhear hot tips on the stock market. Cashing in his last valuable possession — a rare old coin — Ike invests a good deal of money and suddenly finds himself with a good deal more.

Ike is somewhat ambivalent about the ethics of what he’s doing, and Hula does a fine job providi­ng supernatural undertones to his dilemma: The wh­ole cellphone thing is so bizarre, and the authoritative voice on the other end so diabolical, that we’re never sure whether the devil himself may be tempting Ike to ruin; this creates something of a conflict in the reader as well, since we like Ike and want him to turn his life around. Whether money would do so remains an open question to the end.

The “moral dilemma” is heightened by the presence of Ike’s three friends, with whom he shares some of his profits. Also homeless, they aren’t necessarily helped by their newfound wealth — in fact, sometimes quite the opposite. Their names — Chance, Grift and Theo — add to the story’s allegorical nature (“grift” has to do with swindling, fraud and dirty money; “Theodore” literally means “gift of God”). And the fact that one of them may be a murderer adds zest to this plot strand.

Ike has a sure, steady voice, and through this first-person narrator, Hula makes nice use of figurative language: music from inside a bar comes “bursting out like a flood of bizarre graffiti”; and, as Ike says of his regular visits to the library for online trading: “Each trip to this little room with fifty screens was more like a walk into a hellhole.”

At the same time, the book has some grammatical gaffes and clunky sentences — for instance, “Grift looked away as if his thoughts were doing some deep thinking.” And a few of the plot mechanics were tough to swallow, especially the ease with which Ike sets up and pulls off his trades. “I’ll straighten it all out with the IRS later” is not going to float with readers who’ve wrestled with that labyrinthine institution.

But none of this prevents Hula’s plot from moving forward swiftly to a surprising and satisfying conclusion.

“My Patch of Bitter Earth” is available at Amazon; Hula said that if it sells well enough, he may consider a sequel.