To Pay Paul
Michael Scott Curnes
Down Wind Press (2022)
Reviewed by Jill Rey for Reader Views (7/2022)
“To Pay Paul” is a nuanced and complex snippet in time of Seamus Quinlan’s life. Set primarily on the Quinlan farm, the story runs readers through the gauntlet of emotions as Seamus loses his last living relative. In the process of burying his father, he makes new friends, becomes closer to those he already knows, and discovers himself and his voice in the process.
Hanford Nuclear Site, housed within the state of Washington, has a dark legacy. From its role in creating the bombs used to end the United States’ involvement in WWII, to the decades of contamination and nuclear testing that poisoned the residents of the town, author Michael Scott Curnes uses the page to not only bring to light the atrocities of Hanford that occurred in real life, but weaves an impassioned tale of discovering one’s self, in a literal hole. “To Pay Paul” does not shy away from hard conversations, LGBTQ+ themes, and underrepresented matters. Curnes creates a nuanced character in Seamus Quinlan, disguised within a simplistic upbringing, full of heartbreak.
The Quinlan family has always been fraught with death. Being downwind from the nuclear plant, with generations of family having called themselves Hanford employees, cancer is always on Seamus’ mind. With a career in analyzing rocks and soils as a member of the Hanford geophysicist team, Seamus is relied upon for cleaning up any spills, handling collapses caused by the recent earthquakes, and theorizing future geological events. In this role, Seamus partners closely with the local dams to ensure the toxicity of Hanford’s waste are not disrupted by dam failures. It is through these partnerships Seamus befriends Cody. Cody is just a voice on the phone Seamus encounters frequently through work, but with a wife of his own succumbing to cancer, Cody is no stranger to death and heartbreak. Propelling their friendship to new heights, Cody stops by to check on Seamus after the loss of his father and offers to help him lower the casket into the hole, albeit his motives may have been more than meets the eye, this simple gesture results in the unfolding of an extraordinary read, full of Seamus’ knowledge, Cody’s compassion, and mother nature’s unfolding.
Curnes has crafted a truly remarkable and distinguishable read. Laced with bits of truth and waves of sadness and hope, “To Pay Paul” stems from humans’ inability to stop robbing Peter, told amidst a beautiful background.