By Donna Biggert
With his latest novel 40 Days, Joe Lee has created another page-turner set in the fictitious Mississippi town of Oakdale. The story begins with the protagonist, Duane Key, starting to realize he must make some drastic changes to set right the results of a life of bad decisions. Joe writes him with an all-too-believable list of screwed-up relationships, but gives him true-to-life redeeming characteristics while he surrounds him with a faithful lifelong friend, a sincerely loving girlfriend, and a precious six year old son.
Additional characters like Duane’s self-centered egotistic career-minded wife Toni, his crazy ex-girlfriend and Oakdale’s librarian, Candi Redding, as well as the individuals they each interact with, also display an overabundance of mixed-up personalities indicative of real life. As with his other seven novels, Lee develops his characters to the extent that you feel you know them. With his meticulous descriptions and every-day life details, he makes Oakdale seem like many a small Mississippi town, with colorful and off-color citizens, nosy neighbors and a laid-back pace.
The faith-based element of this story makes it a little different from Lee’s previous novels. With references to the Catholic Church, a tremendously understanding priest, and the Lenten Season, this book is a good representation of a lay Catholic’s grasp of God’s love. Particular descriptions about Duane’s baptism, the church, and God’s love and forgiveness are comforting reading for a believer. The entire story is built around an almost unbelievable numerical countdown that Duane experiences which only he can see. Lee even numbers the chapters in descending order to accentuate the countdown of forty days, emphasizing that time is running out. As the suspense builds with the countdown, so does the sense of urgency for making amends for past misdeeds.
The all-too-lifelike unpredictability of troubled individuals is played out in several scenarios. Virtues like hope and charity as well as the determination to correct past misdeeds are demonstrated all through the story.
As Duane, the protagonist, deliberately and methodically sets about making many big and positive changes in his life, the writer uses the countdown to underscore the sense of urgency Duane feels. True remorse, forgiveness, and redemption are threaded throughout the pages.
40 Days, like Joe Lee’s other novels, is an easy and entertaining read. The characters are at once familiar and believable and while they don’t necessarily behave in a moral way, the reader is left with insight into the rightness of making amends while there is time.
(Donna Biggert is a parishioner of Madison St. Francis of Assisi. Joe Lee is a Madison author and publisher.)