15 Seconds

  • Andrew Gross
  • William Morrow
  • 336 pp.

Philip Jason reviews the thrill ride that is Andrew Gross' 15 Seconds.

Reviewed by Philip K. Jason

As we meet Dr. Henry Steadman, a successful Boca Raton plastic surgeon and owner of several pain-management clinics, he is trying to find the Jacksonville hotel where he will be the featured speaker at a medical conference. Sheriff’s deputies stop him for a minor infraction, then bully and threaten him as if he were a major criminal and security risk. Soon he hears gunfire and sees a dead police officer. Worse, people are shooting at him. Fleeing to save his life, Steadman is totally disoriented. He can’t believe this is happening. Or why.

Suddenly, he is a wanted man. A policeman is dead, and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has already, it seems, tried and convicted Steadman. The police ignore his explanations and ignore evidence pointing to his innocence.

Meet Amanda Hofer. Sometime before Steadman’s ordeal begins, she has the worst day of her life. Late for work and strung out on pills, she loses control of her car and ends the lives of a young mother and child. Belligerent when coherent, she is locked up and before long is sentenced to 20 years. Her father Vance, a former policeman turned chronic loser, sees Amanda as a victim. Her life, like his own, is a case history in how the haves exploit and undermine the have-nots. And he’s going to hold someone accountable.

Vance Hofer has made Steadman, whose clinics prescribe the kind of drugs Amanda is addicted to, the target of his vengeance. He vows to make Steadman suffer as he has suffered. Steadman must lose a daughter as he has lost a daughter. Hofer kidnaps and tortures Steadman’s daughter, who is nearly the same age as Amanda, and controls the doctor’s behavior through this leverage. He won’t let Steadman turn himself in. If Hofer hears that the police are involved in the case or have any knowledge of Steadman’s daughter’s disappearance, she will be tortured to death. Henry Steadman is a desperate man. He struggles to find a way to rescue his daughter, and he is nearing a complete breakdown. Enter Carrie Holmes, a valiant woman dealing with her own life-altering tragedies. She has returned from a leave of absence from her community relations job with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office following the death of her husband and a life-threatening injury to her son. Unlike her colleagues, she hears the logic in Steadman’s explanation and questions, and she feels the desperation in his voice. Holmes begins to believe Steadman was set up in the police shooting — that the whole scene near the Jacksonville hotel was staged.

But how? By whom? Why?

15 Seconds starts with a bang and never lets up. The novel’s thrill factors include not only the premise and plot, but also Andrew Gross’ masterful writing. His management of revelation and indirection is superb. He shows himself a maestro in the orchestration of point of view — standing behind the first-person narration of Steadman but additionally giving us third-person perspectives into Hofer, Holmes and others. Carefully sequenced leaps in time work hand in hand with the other strategies to keep readers glued to each page as the suspense mounts and the stakes grow larger and larger. Through his ordeal Steadman learns something troubling about himself. He tells us, “… it occurred to me that we all have a certain capacity for violence if you dig down deep enough. If someone threatens what really matters in your life … If you went past fear and worry and dread … And Hofer had dug down as deep as was possible in me.”

Steadman’s ordeal not only takes us up and down Florida’s ocean coast, but also through a good deal more of the Southeast. Gross’ handling of a wide variety of settings is rock solid, as is his feel for cultural nuance.

Andrew Gross is finely attuned to the fact that 15 seconds is all it takes to have one’s life totally upended. He tells us in the acknowledgements, “This all actually happened — being pulled out of my car, cuffed, told I was under arrest and going to jail, and thrown into the back of a police car while other police vehicles arrived on the scene — incredibly, while on book tour in Houston. Even the threatening 9/11 type questions that were hurled at Henry were directed at me.” Fifteen seconds terrified Gross, and he shows us how they upend the lives of Henry Steadman, Amanda Hofer and Carrie Holmes.

In this intense novel, Gross makes us feel as if each short interval of time is loaded with the buckshot of instant and cataclysmic change. We only imagine that our lives continue on predictable courses. But in truth, we are vulnerable. How does this awareness of the future’s randomness change our expectations? How does it fine-tune our antennae? At the gut level of vicarious experience, 15 Seconds presses such questions upon us.

Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore magazine, he is the author or editor of 20 books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom. His reviews appear in a wide variety of regional and national publications.

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