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Book review: Debut 'Sky' soars on Pack's skills
"The Bottom of the Sky" Author: William C. Pack Publisher: Riverbend Publishing Courtesy photo

Roundup native William C. Pack's debut novel, "The Bottom of the Sky," reads like a top-notch book from a well-seasoned author far into a career.

His strong development of characters and vivid use of landscape are evident from the opening lines of the prologue of the book, which is set primarily in Roundup; Billings, where he grew up; and California, where Pack now lives when not in Bozeman.

Emotions run raw throughout the saga of the Monroe family, which begins in 1969 as the Apollo astronauts return to Earth from that first moon visit and Virginia Monroe contemplates killing her husband, Frank, "in the middle of a dead zoo."

The perfect description for a mining-town bar with walls festooned with mounts of wildlife and even mutant farm animals.

That Virginia is an alcoholic and mentally unsettled is clear from the start, as is the hard-scrabble life of the family and the dark secret that haunts the couple and its children, Levi and Lam.

Like Pack in his own life, Levi, as a teen, becomes legally emancipated from his parents, but, even in adulthood as a successful manager in an investment firm, he remains firmly bound to his family and his past.

He's a teen who just has to get away from a home situation where he finds his life drained of color when he becomes upset or afraid.

Pack creates a strong support for Levi in his longtime girlfriend and, later, wife, Angela. But he's also caught up in following his almost magical powers to predict the market and his lust to rise to the top in his field.

In unfolding Levi's tale, the author mines his own experiences rising from a Billings brokerage house to manager of a California office, then on to the NASD, partner of the SEC in enforcing regulations governing Wall Street.

While Levi reaches for the top, he discovers a system riddled with ways of taking advantage of clients and a hate for his supervisor. Telling his own staffers to play honest and fair doesn't endear him to old-timers used to padding their earnings at the expense of customers.

"I thought I could change the culture. Make it more honest. So far I've just made people uncomfortable. Scared," Levi muses.

A realistic fate for one trying to swim against the stream.

And, even though he's physically escaped his past, Levi remains tied to Roundup by his promise to always be there for sister Lam, and, the need to care for his parents.

As life spirals out of control for Levi, Pack creates a wrenching look at a man who sees himself as vanishing in the maelstrom.

Lam, too, battles a tragic childhood that seems only to repeat itself as she becomes an adult and mother.

Her struggle sets the book apart - the fear, the pain, the hopelessness, the sense of self-loathing and the inability to shake off the abuse and build a life with a good man who truly loves and understands her.

For Angela, Levi's descent into destruction leaves her "weary of shoring up a framework on which to hang some thin gauze of normalcy."

We easily see Pack's characters as whole, though tormented, individuals with hopes, longings, temptations and deep, deep disappointments. And the settings come to life - mountains "blinding white, pocked with evergreen"; a kitchen with "a bucket of steaming water … slopping out liquid orbs that skittered like angry mercury on the hot iron" of the stove; a rail bed, smudging from sight a distant locomotive that whistled to Levi with more promise than lament."

Pack's rich writing is made more so by his use of symbolism - not forced as in so many modern novels, but skillfully woven into the heart of the book.

The mountains and sky of the book's title are strong symbols from the first page to the end, as is the scar on Levi's hand from a burn caused by his father. Marked from childhood with skin that, like his life, has the color stolen away and replaced by gray.

Even the pads of dryer lint collected compulsively by Levi's mad mother have a hopeful meaning in the end.

What could be dry and dense talk of the investment industry becomes an understandable and compelling journey into the corrupting power of money.

Pack brings it all together in a debut that deserves national attention.

Contact Chris Rubich at crubich@billingsgazette.com or 657-1301.

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