Wednesday, June 6, 2007

"Volk's Game"

Brent Ghelfi applied the "page 69 test" to his debut thriller, Volk's Game, and reported the following:
The centerpiece of Volk’s Game is a long-lost Leonardo painting called Leda and the Swan, discovered hidden behind another painting in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum. It is a treasure so transcendent that Volk will do almost anything to possess it. Together with a small team he breaks into the Hermitage through now-submerged catacombs built in the time of Peter the Great.

Those who crack open the book on page 69 will find themselves on the edge of an ancient loading dock beneath the Hermitage. Volk and his lover, Valya, have been betrayed. They’re trapped, waiting for the cover of darkness to make their escape, with only one air tank and only one way out — through fifty meters of frigid river water in a submerged tunnel.

Is this a good place to get a sense of the story? On one level, Volk’s Game can be read as a hard, fast thriller — an art heist gone bad, with all the craziness of modern-day Russia as a backdrop. On a different level it is a story about the search for something pure and good amid tragedy and evil. The scene that begins on page 69 implies both readings, and suggests what the treasure at the heart of the story truly is.

From page 69:

When my chronometer beeps midnight the next day, I strap the nearly exhausted air tank onto Valya’s back, hoping it will offer a few metallic breaths. Without a wetsuit, exposure will quickly drive the oxygen from her body, slowing her progress.

We swim out until the ceiling touches her hair. Her lips are teeth-chattering blue already. She presses them icily against mine. She clings. Her steel grey eyes look fiercely determined behind the glass of Kamil’s too-big facemask as we take several deep breaths. She nods. We dive and kick hard through the catacombs.

The first ten meters pass too slowly. She offers the mouthpiece and I suck greedily without getting much oxygen, and then push her on. She’s ahead of me, so I can’t see her face when the air in the tank gives out, but her frantic kicks and the burning in my own lungs tell me that it has happened. She paddles madly through the chute toward the upper tunnels. But she pulls up short with a jerk. I can’t see clearly through the murk, but she’s flailing wildly. Too many hand-scrabbling, mind-screaming seconds pass before I find that her tank is caught on the edge of the chute and yank it loose.

When she’s free again, she struggles furiously beside me, but I know it is a losing battle. Her limbs slow to a ponderous crawl. I grasp a strap. Pull, yank, drag. Our progress is far too slow. My lungs are on fire. The underwater world turns chalky grey. She’s dead weight within a few meters after we finally emerge from the chute.

I kick with everything I have left. Fifteen more meters to go to the air pocket I shared with Kamil. Too far. My lungs are a roaring furnace.

I kick frantically. Ten meters left. Darkness crawls the edges of my vision.

I can’t see. I’m not going to make it.
Goddammit, be strong! My kicks morph into useless flutters. The murk becomes a swirl of prismatic colors. The water is peaceful, restful, warmly embracing …

Last year, at a table in Vadim’s café littered with stacks of used shot glasses and discarded vodka bottles, when Valya was still willing to entertain such questions, Nabi asked her why she used to sell herself for money. Our little party fell silent. I choked the neck of a Gzhelka bottle and considered busting open Nabi’s skull. But then Valya answered calmly, “Because I needed to eat.” She popped a stuffed olive into her mouth and smiled white-haired radiance around it as she chewed. “And I preferred fucking strangers over fucking my father and his brothers.”

For some reason that vignette plays repeating loops in my mind. When it stops, I realize that I’m floating faceup, staring without comprehension at channeled wet stone.

I’m still alive.

I turn my head. Next to me in the water is Valya. Her slicked-back hair and big eyes make her look like a hopeful seal.

“It was my turn to pull,” she says.
Check out the Volk's Game website and read Chapter One.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue