Review by Kate Horsley
Duane Swierczynski’s Revolver opens in the mid-60s, with two cops, one black and one white, drinking beer in a North Philly taproom when “sunlight blasts into the bar” – along with a man holding a revolver. No one is officially charged with the murder of Officers Stan Walczak and George Wildey, and the sequence of events that unfolded on that spring day in 1965 is only revealed to us at the end of the novel, when the scene of the shooting is recreated in full. For decades after the crime, the pain caused affects the lives of the families of the officers killed, and the unanswered questions drive an obsessive need to find out what happened. Revolver is a complex, compelling account of successive attempts to discover the truth.
We see events primarily through the eyes of Stan Walczak and his family – beginning with the Polish cop’s police work and his growing friendship with his black partner in the months leading up to their deaths. Thirty years on, in 1995, the unsolved case is still tormenting his son Jim, now himself working as a policeman; and the investigation is carried further by his granddaughter Audrey, who returns to Philadelphia in 2015 for a memorial service held on the 50th anniversary of her grandfather’s death. Focusing on these three years – 1965, 1995 and 2015 – Swierczynski teases out the interconnected traumas of private and public life – the guilt, the tangled secrets and long-hidden connections. Audrey reflects that “all this drama in her life and screwed-up family began at that corner of Seventeenth and Fairmount, in a dive bar. And maybe she’s holding on to this foolish dream that if she can figure out what happened back then, she can try to understand what the fuck is happening to them now.” And that is ultimately, of course, not just a personal but a historical question. What happened then to make things the way they are now? How have past wrongs created the calamities of the present?
Swierczynski first thought of writing Revolver when he read a Philadelphia Inquirer piece about the 1963 murders of two police officers and realized that “the bitter anger of their families, even after all these years, was palpable.” It is a novel that movingly captures the ramifications of hurt and anger over the years, amongst the Walczak descendants in particular, but also in terms of the wider and ongoing racial conflicts within Philadelphia. Revolver is based on impressive historical research, ranging from newspapers and academic studies to archival material on the civil rights movement in Philadelphia, establishing a vividly realized sense of the city over a fifty year period.
Within this carefully established historical context, Swierczynski creates powerful images of the conflicts that tear apart both cities and families. A commitment to honourable action persists over the decades, but so does the will to deceive and corrupt, and all of the characters in the novel are mired in the consequences. People long to keep alive the memory of what happened: it is important that Stan’s descendants hear the story of the 1965 shooting because “what happened here needs to be remembered.” But there can be no uncomplicated identification of the guilty party, and there have been many different motives for keeping secrets. What ultimately must be uncovered are personal treacheries, family betrayals and public lies. The public dimension ranges from unprincipled union bosses and gangsters to politically ambitious people anxious to conceal past transgressions on the way to the top – because “the mayor wants to be America’s mayor,” because there might be “a run for the governor’s office, maybe even the White House…” Revolver is an ambitious novel, and one that succeeds in its aim of giving readers uncomfortable insights into a half-century of urban turmoil. It is a story told with great warmth and humour, but also with a dark sense of the ironies and contradictions underlying generations of violence and misunderstanding.