CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- John Van Kirk, who teaches writing and literature at Marshall University, was born in New Jersey, attended Webster University and Washington University and flew as a U.S. Navy helicopter pilot. After leaving the Navy, he earned an MFA degree from the University of Maryland. His short stories have been widely published in magazines, journals and anthologies and have earned him the O. Henry Award and The Iowa Review Fiction Prize. He's taught at Marshall since 1993.Now Van Kirk has published his first novel, "Song for Chance." Van Kirk's boyhood in New Jersey provided him the material for his early short stories, set against the backdrop of factory towns and Catholic schools in the tumultuous decade of the 1960s. Van Kirk recalls that his high school served as a makeshift barracks for troops dispatched to quell the Newark riots of 1967.
In his debut novel, he leaps ahead by roughly a decade, to the rock n' roll era of the 1970s as recalled by fictional rock legend Jack Voss. As the reader meets the aging keyboard artist and composer, Voss is spending his evenings in the relative sanctuary of the clubs, where he plays jazz standards and sometimes sings some of the songs he made famous. Voss, we soon learn, is a man tortured by his memories. As a college student, Voss wrote a rock opera revolving around a tragic love-triangle that ends in murder-suicide. When it was recorded, the piece catapulted Voss and his bank into rock superstardom -- and touched off a national wave of teen suicides. That was years ago, but Voss remains haunted by the resultant guilt. When his own daughter is a victim in a similar love triangle ending in murder and suicide, Voss is pushed to the breaking point. To survive he must confront his many failings as a husband, father and friend. In its review of "Song for Chance," Publishers Weekly magazine describes it as a "passionate, elegiac tale about the excesses of sex, drugs, and rock and roll over a haunted musician's lifetime." That's an accurate description and one that should provide fair warning for any readers likely to be offended by a book that's filled with scenes of sex and drugs -- to say nothing of rock n' roll.Retired Huntington newspaper editor James E. Casto frequently reviews books for the Sunday Gazette-Mail.