Contemporary Books, October 13, 2015
“The strictly good and solely bad were gone.
I was amongst the undecided.”
– Augustine Shaw, Stone Angels
As a reader, there is nothing quite exciting as picking up a book from an author you have never heard of, with the summary of the story promising an escape and a good read. It’s very much like going on an adventure-its what all good books are. Stone Angels by Michael Hartigan is the most recent book that I came across and delivered on its promise. This is a lyrical and thoroughly engrossing story about Augustine Shaw, a young man who reflects on the last few years of his life in college, which includes his experience with first love, friendships gone awry and the unintended consequences that occur when both aspects of his life overlap one another.
The story opens up with Augustine, who goes by nickname Shaw, on the road back from a drunken getaway with three of his college friends. They are all about to graduate and Shaw is about to be catapulted into adulthood. In the dead of the night, with his car nearly out of gas, he stops to refuel at a gas station and it is there on the wall he finds written: “Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.” And so begins his journey towards self-redemption and forgiveness.
He utilizes the long, solitary journey on the road back home to reflect on the last few years of his life, that no doubt will shape the person he is about to become. The book is told in a first person narrative and the author utilizes this voice very effectively. This story has less to do with what happened, in terms of events, and more with what Shaw thinks and feels. Stone Angels isn’t a story about man vs man, but man vs himself. This is a very important part of the story because Shaw’s internal story is the one that matters the most.
Among the many aspects that made this book an enjoyable read was the prose. The author demonstrated his talents with many passages and descriptions that brought Shaw’s experiences to another level. As a reader, it was incredibly satisfying to have the character display an emotion or thought, and also have the world around him conjured up in a way by the author’s words. This gave the book a sense of literary cohesion.
Another great aspect of this book were all the cast of characters. Though this story is told in the first person, all the people that surrounded Shaw were effortlessly conjured up, helping to weave Shaw’s story together. It was easy reading through the book and feeling like you were there for every drunken brawl or intimate conversation Shaw had with another character. Lily, who is a major character in the book and at the center of Shaw’s story, isn’t actively present in a lot of scenes, but she is very much present in Shaw’s thoughts and actions. This was perhaps the magic of the book—a character who doesn’t have as much of a physical presence, but yet they are there in nearly all the passages, marked by their absence.
Like Lily who is physically absent from much of the story, another aspect of the story that one can argue is a character, is the dark emotion known as guilt. That guilt is always there, right on the edge of Shaw’s mind. Throughout the story it felt as though guilt were a mute character, shaping Shaw’s thoughts and actions. And it isn’t until he’s ready to confront his guilt that he’s able to confront himself as a person.
Though this story is very dark and dense, it was gripping story that was hard to walk away from. It was deeply satisfying to read about an intensely flawed character who holds himself accountable to all of his wrong doings, all while still eliciting sympathy from the reader.
Stone Angels is a psychological thriller, where the narrator takes you deep into the crevasses of his mind to reveal what guilt can do to you, and no matter how far try to you run away, guilt with always find you.
By Jack Magnus
Stone Angels is a literary fiction thriller written by Michael Hartigan. They were seniors now, and it was their last spring break. The four friends were on their way back north to school in Rhode Island after a hedonistic week of sun-drenched days and drunken nights in Key West. They had gone as far away as they possibly could from school and the capricious weather patterns of their odd little corner of New England. Now, it was time to return. They were all a bit wasted and worn; three of them dozing in the Explorer and sleeping off the excesses of the night before. Only Shaw, the driver, was still awake and watching the fuel gauge's needle dipping lower and lower. When he finally saw an exit sign prominently indicating a fuel station, he headed off the highway and started looking for the lights that would mean he had found it. He had no such luck, however, only the continued darkness of a back country road in Northern Florida. The fuel warning noise was dinging more and more furiously, echoing his own near-panic at being stranded out in the middle of nowhere, until suddenly the small, barely lit station appeared, waiting for them at the bottom of the hill. They were in a different world out here, and Shaw, more so than any of his friends, found himself confronting the divide between his past and an unknown and daunting future. There were sins to account for and debts to pay, but he was prepared to do what was necessary to be granted redemption.
Michael Hartigan's literary fiction thriller, Stone Angels, is a brooding and introspective coming of age story, narrated by college senior, Augustine Shaw, who, after reading The Paradoxical Commandments printed on a bright red piece of paper and hanging on the wall of that North Florida gas station, resolves to confess what he's done and get on with atoning for those crimes. Hartigan's story is richly nuanced, and I found myself completely caught up in Shaw's tale. I loved sharing vicariously in the new-found freedom of the young roommates, who live blissfully free of parental control in that first year of college. I understood Shaw's confusion and increasing frustration with Duncan, a high school acquaintance who had been determined to share the college life with Shaw, but then did all he could to make Shaw’s life a misery. Stone Angels is a complex and many-layered work that alternates the joy of youth with the devastating effects of guilt and regret. Hartigan's characters are vividly portrayed, and the dramatic moments in the story are unforgettable. This powerful and compelling debut novel is most highly recommended.
By John Tamilio III, Ph.D.
“We were clearly lost and the dashboard light blinked desperately, telling me I was running on empty.” So begins the story of Augustine Shaw and sets the tone of his literal and metaphorical journey into the past to wrestle with the guilt that plagues him.
Shaw is an amalgam of people that became incarnate in the stories Michael Hartigan wrote as an undergraduate at Providence College, which happens to be the principal setting for his first novel, Stone Angels. In fact, Hartigan stitched these stories together over the course of a decade to produce this book, which earned him the 2015 Merrimack Media Outstanding Writer Award.
Merrimack Media is a small press in Cambridge, which enables independent writers to self-publish. Each year, though, they host a contest in which the “winner receives full publication of his or her book, both as a paperback and e-book with a custom cover, [and] an interview on the Author Connection,” the online channel featuring independent authors. Hartigan entered on the advice of a co-worker. Now this Saugus native is hailed as “a master builder of suspense and plot” by literary colleagues such as Kelly Easton.
Much of Augustine’s story is told in retrospect as he travels back to school with three of his friends after a road trip to Key West. The protagonist is also the narrator. What we read is what he recalls and the process of redemption on which he has embarked. “Augustine is a college senior who is responsible for some bad things,” Hartigan says. “There’s a cheating scandal and some broken hearts, but mostly he feels responsible for killing two of his friends and for keeping his involvement in their deaths a secret. Right from the outset, the reader is dropped into Augustine’s mind.”
Having been trained in literary studies, it is no surprise that Hartigan’s influences are the legendary authors of the Western canon. On the website for Stone Angels, Hartigan notes, “I am a sucker for the classics.” He cites MacBeth as his favorite Shakespearian play, and he and his wife named their daughter Cordelia after a character from King Lear, but clearly his writing has been influenced by Hamlet. Prince Hamlet is said to be the first modern character in literature (even though he appeared a century and a half before the Enlightenment), because through him the author gives his audience insight into a character’s conscious moral deliberation. This is the narrative approach Hartigan employs with Augustine Shaw.
Although it is his debut novel, Stone Angels is not Hartigan’s first rodeo as a writer. A seasoned journalist who earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in English and psychology, as well as a Master’s degree in journalism from Boston University, Hartigan penned articles for USA Today, The Arizona Republic, and Destinations Travel Magazine.
Hartigan is also a political writer. Currently, he is the communications director for U.S. Congresswoman Niki Tsongas (Massachusetts Third District). He began this position in 2012 and has worked for Tsongas in her Washington, D.C., and Lowell offices. Hartigan is the congresswoman’s spokesperson and is in charge of all public and external relations. “I work closely with members of the local and national media,” he says, “handling all proactive and reactive media inquiries and interviews. I am responsible for the majority of what is disseminated publicly from the office, so I do a lot of writing—speeches, press releases, opinion pieces, and the like.”
Prior to this, Hartigan worked as public information officer for the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office where he was responsible for internal and external communications for the agency’s 850 employees and the county’s 1.5 million citizens. Hartigan claims, “My experience both in journalistic writing and public relations have had a positive influence on my fiction writing and my ability to tell a better story. It has taught me how to appreciate every word, and how to take something complex and distill it into something appetizing to a broader audience.”
To promote the novel, Hartigan has been featured at bookstore signings and library readings throughout New England—sometimes alone, other times with a fellow writer. One of those recent appearances was at Barnes & Noble in his hometown. Wearing a sweater, sipping on coffee, and standing next to a card table with a dozen copies of his book, he chatted congenially with patrons.
The old adage claims you can’t judge a book by its cover. The cover to Stone Angels, however, is exquisitely haunting. Black, gray, and white hues cast the silhouette of an angelic figure that seems to be rising out of granite. The title is equally alluring. “Actually, the book went through several title changes over the years,” Hartigan reflects. It wasn’t until it was complete that Hartigan was able to step back and look at the novel as a whole. “Augustine is a young man looking for answers, looking for guidance on how to alleviate this enormous guilt weighing on him. I arrived at Stone Angels and immediately loved it, and the layered meaning it has for Augustine and his journey.”
We think of angels as ethereal guides and protectors. Augustine is looking for the former. However, “the image of a stone angel is opposite of this,” Hartigan says. “It is cold, unyielding, and unhelpful—that is what Augustine is feeling, like he’s getting no guidance from anywhere.”
Will Stone Angels have a sequel? Possibly, but not until Hartigan’s next writing project, which will most likely be a collection of his travel writings. But even if he does not embark on a sequel soon, he envisions having some of his characters, such as Augustine Shaw, making appearances in future works of fiction.
Like most artists, Hartigan enjoys the overwhelming response his book has garnered. “Hearing readers say they truly enjoyed the story is motivation enough for me to dive into writing the next book,” Hartigan confesses. “The next one is up there, in my head ready to go.” www.stoneangelsbook.com