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Book looks
'Second-career' novelists take up familiar themes


September 2012

City stars

One quirky thing about Milwaukee, says Matt Flynn, author of "Pryme Knumber: A Novel about Taking a Stand," is that its inhabitants are so self-deprecating that outsiders think they can just waltz in and push us around. But as operatives from the federal government and Yale academics discover during the course of Flynn’s story, we’re not a bunch of rubes.

In the opening pages of the book, the uncle of Bernie Weber, a Riverside High School math phenom loosely based on Flynn’s nephew, points out more of the city’s endearing idiosyncrasies — suffice it to say that if you’ve lived here for any length of time, you’ll laugh out loud.

The plot of Flynn’s "good-natured satire" stems from Bernie Weber’s ability to factor prime numbers in his head. Could he become the world’s best code-breaker? Washington elites are sure of it, so they turn up in Milwaukee determined to kidnap Weber and use his gift for their own purposes. Milwaukeeans dare them to try.

"It’s very much a David and Goliath theme," Flynn explains. It’s UW-Milwaukee vs. Yale, Midwest city vs. the nation’s capital.

Throughout the book, Milwaukeeans will recognize characters that exhibit some of the same eccentricities as local politicians. "Mayors, aldermen, county supervisors, they’re all in there," Flynn says.

That’s no accident, though the author insists all are composite characters. Flynn is the former chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, co-chaired Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign in the state in 2004, ran for Congress and worked on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid in 2008.

Flynn’s family moved to Milwaukee from the East Coast when he was 15, and his father chaired the Spanish Department at UW-Milwaukee. "He always encouraged my writing. He and my mom didn’t buy a television set ‘til I was out of college, so we read and we wrote and I enjoyed it," Flynn says.

Flynn writes a fast-paced tale, using a style, he says, he has honed in his 35 years as a litigator for local law firm Quarles & Brady. "I wrote it like a reply brief," Flynn says. "A reply brief has to be usually very short, very to the point, without much buildup at all."

Flynn and his wife, Mary, live on Milwaukee’s East Side and are enthusiastic fans of the city’s cultural life. He has served on the board of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, as president of the Skylight Music Theatre and the now-defunct Milwaukee Shakespeare. The city’s iconic and not-so-well-known landmarks turn up in the story, but its people steal the show.

"There’s a lot to Milwaukee, a lot of integrity, a lot of humanity," says Flynn. "You can present a great deal of life just by describing a locality. Milwaukee deserves to be described."

Biblical Themes

Harold Eppley’s debut novel "Ash Wednesday" may make some clergy hot under the collar, but so far, his parishioners at Lincoln Park Lutheran Church in Glendale have been able to draw a distinction between his life as a writer and his role as pastor.

After writing seven nonfiction works on spiritual topics with his wife, Rochelle Melander, Eppley began to write a short story about a pastor who discovers some unsavory secrets about his beloved predecessor. The colorful characters he added to the story started to "take on lives of their own," he says, and soon he realized that he was actually writing a novel. "I did not set out to write a humorous or irreverent book. I do find that a number of popular novels portray religious professionals in an idealistic manner," he says. "Pastors are people too, and I know from experience that most of them are no holier than anyone else, no matter what they would like you to think.

"I remind people that my novel is no more sexually explicit than some of the stories that appear in the Bible, and that both my novel and the Bible are ultimately about grace and forgiveness."

Eppley says he was pleased to see 15 of his parishioners at his book signing at Boswell Books, and if they hate "Ash Wednesday," they haven’t said so: "The novel does not seem to have changed the respect my parishioners have for me, or my office, though I have noticed that the atmosphere at church events has taken on a lighter tone lately."

Road Trip

About 70 percent of Milwaukee native Tom Wascoe’s novel "Backseat" is fiction, he says, but about 30 percent of the on-the-road story is real. The true portion of the tale is based on his adventures hitchhiking from UW-Oshkosh to California, Pa., as part of a fraternity pledging.

Wascoe retired at 57 as senior VP of human resources for Abbott Laboratories, a job that took him to more than 60 countries. He now spends several hours each day pursuing his love of writing. "Backseat" is his debut novel and it took him nearly five years to complete.

The story is set in 1969 and Michael, the protagonist, is not having a stellar freshman year at college, so he takes to the road, hitchhiking Wascoe’s 1,600-mile route in just three snowy days.

"During that trip, Michael learns a lot about himself and makes some changes in himself," Wascoe says. "It’s kind of a life-defining, coming-of-age story. The way he changes is unexpected at the end."

A Vietnam veteran, Wascoe is currently working on "Child of the Dust," a novel inspired by the experience of a fellow GI who was forced to leave his Vietnamese girlfriend and their baby behind when he returned from the war.


This story ran in the September 2012 issue of: