(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

With Triphammer Dan McCall returns to territory covered more routinely in an earlier novel, Bluebird Canyon (1983), and reintroduces a character from that work. The character’s nickname gives the reader of this eponymous novel an immediate clue to the type of story about to unfold: gritty, minimalist, hard-edged.

The opening chapter leaves no doubts. Triphammer, a veteran middle-aged cop in Ithaca, New York, receives a call from a local attorney distraught over his missing twelve-year-old son. Triphammer immediately begins to worry about the case even though police procedure requires a twenty-four-hour wait before filing a missing-person report. In the morning, a patrol officer tells him that a body has been found at the bottom of Buttermilk Falls, and Triphammer reveals his inability to distance himself from a case: “When we get out on the bridge and look over the side, my heart skips a beat.” Triphammer suffers from the same lack of detachment, the same emotional identification with all victims, that defines the “heroes” of most modern police procedurals. Yet he is no stereotype, and McCall’s novel is no lengthy cliche’. It is precisely because of the protagonist, eloquent in his misery, and McCall’s skillful characterizations that Triphammer is memorable and original. Otherwise the thin plot and, at first glance, contrived love story would render the novel ordinary.

The child in the opening chapter is indeed dead, and a less gifted writer might well have left the story there. McCall’s purpose, however, is to allow Triphammer to explain his virtues and failings as a policeman. He muddles painfully through the scene in which he has to explain to the family that the boy is dead. It is an excruciating experience, both for the reader and for Triphammer, who must return a second time to tell the family that the death was a suicide.

Such is the working life of an undistinguished but good cop in Ithaca, New York, a city that in its gray ordinariness provides the perfect locale for the crimes of murder, child abuse, and domestic violence with which Triphammer must contend daily. The weather offers no solace; it too is a symbolic backdrop for Triphammer’s bleak vtews: “When it gets as cold as this, it reminds you of death, the trees barren, their skeleton arms all frantic in the wind. The whole wide world itself seems utterly hopeless and forbidding.” No wonder then that he is an alcoholic. He knows the rules; he tries to follow them and fails. He explains, “When you’re working, you put on a suit of armor. Nothing leaks in and nothing leaks out. Every day you check to make sure all the leaks are stopped up. If you didn’t, your emotions would drive you crazy.” In fact, Triphammer violates his cardinal rule, “Don’t let any of your emotions out,” twice in the opening chapters. First he assaults a man suspected of child abuse, then he gets personally involved with an attractive victim of domestic violence.

Sydney, an intelligent graduate student of film history, is the woman who saves Triphammer—the character and the novel—from drifting into unrelieved self-pity. She is his opposite: educated, yet ill-equipped to deal with an abusive relationship; self-confident, yet timorous in the face of a new entanglement. Sydney’s moral questions are complicated by the academician’s tendency to qualify. Triphammer, who feels inferior to anyone who has finished college, is more direct but equally rigid in his moral concerns: “I try to treat everybody the same, but I realize I have gut feelings, not knowledge.” He is ashamed of the way he has treated another woman with whom he has had an affair. She loved him but in a manipulative way, and Triphammer, completely aware of her ruses, still feels guilty: “It always upsets you when you fail to reciprocate strong feelings like that. It puts you in a bind.”

It is a measure of McCall’s effectiveness that Triphammer’s self-descriptions, or his descriptions of others, explain motivation and, ultimately, events without being obvious or heavy-handed. What appears to be direct and simple is actually complicated and anything but straightforward. Sydney gives Triphammer’s deadening routine a jolt. He falls gradually in love, and the novelist takes...

(The entire section is 1748 words.)