Set in January and February 1968, Unopened Letters from Dead Men is the story of a father and his two sons struggling to cope with their lives a year after the family matriarch was killed in an accident. Al Jr., the eldest son, enlisted in the Army after his father blamed him for the accident. The youngest son, Billy, is the best player on the varsity basketball team, and he has struggled with maintaining his enthusiasm to play. Their father is struggling with his daily functioning, and everyone appears to notice but him. After a game in which Billy sacrifices his scoring for the team, his father attacks him, forcing Billy to seek out his brother for sanctuary. He finds his brother an alcoholic with his left hand amputated, and he resolves to bring the family together. But his optimism falters as he discovers it isn't enough to change the family's fractured structure.
Meet The Author
JEFF REGAN has worked in the mental health field for over 20 years in various capacities. He was inspired to write this novel by many of the conflicts he has seen that have led to many unresolved rifts and fractured relationships. This story is a dedication to those he hopes have found peace with one another in the great beyond. He currently works as a community mental health worker in Logansport, Indiana.
What The Critics Say
"Regan tells the story of three men attempting to move beyond the death of their family’s matriarch in this debut novel.
In the Midwestern town of Richland around 1968, high school basketball star Billy Hennessey hasn’t recovered since his mother, Janet, died in a car accident nearly a year ago. He finds it harder to relate to his friends, and he recently lost his girlfriend. He isn’t the only one reeling; the loss has made his overbearing father, Big Al, angrier and more prone to violence: “Her voice, sometimes the only reasonable one in the house, was gone.” Big Al blames his other son, Al Jr., for her death, as she was on the way to pick him up in the car. Al Jr. was sent to Vietnam not long afterward and returned with a severe injury. He’s been avoiding his father and brother ever since, suffering from PTSD... and feeling unsure about his place in the world. Despite their conflicts, the men still wish to remain a family, although they’ll have to find a way to communicate with one another without Janet’s mediation. If they can understand one another’s pasts—and survive the dangers of the present—they might be able to build a real future. Regan’s detailed prose, which shifts its perspective between the three Hennessey men, strikes a deliberative tone throughout the novel: “Music blared out from an outside speaker he couldn’t remember being there before, a lively song about a brown-eyed girl that reminded him of Janet, overwhelming him until he was momentarily oblivious to everything.” The narrative moves at a slow pace, but as it does, it effectively delves into the psyches of all three of its major characters, exposing problems that go much deeper than the loss of a wife or mother—including problems of the world at large. The result is a novel that captures not only the fractures of family relationships, but also those of a small community caught at a key moment of cultural transformation.
A brooding family saga with emotional depth."
It's 1968, the year following Janet Hennessy's death; sadly, she's no longer there to serve as a buffer between her husband and two sons. To escape his father's blame for his mother's accident, Al Jr. joins the army and comes back with an amputation and a drinking problem. His younger brother, Billy, is the star basketball player on his high school team, but his performance never meets up to his father's unreasonable demands. After his father physically assaults him for not scoring enough points, Billy leaves home to find Al Jr. In Unopened Letters from Dead Men by Jeff Regan, the story follows the relationship between a father and his two sons, as they each struggle to deal with their loss.
Regan's experience as a mental health worker lends authenticity to his writing as he addresses...the complexities of father-son relationships, sibling rivalry, abandonment, child abuse, alcoholism, war-related PTSD, and loss. Strong characterization drives the story, and Regan masters the important rule of showing versus telling. Each family member features strengths and weaknesses as well as likable and unlikable traits. As the story unfolds, the characters gradually show signs of growth. Because of his athletic skills, Billy has been raised to be arrogant but learns vulnerability. Al Jr. begins the story as a fragile shell of a person and becomes more confident.
I most liked Regan's poignant portrayal of Big Al's relationship with his two sons, which was dysfunctional long before his wife's death. The father's overt favoritism of his younger son was heartbreaking and resulted in negative consequences for both young men. While Al Jr. experienced the brunt of his father's disapproval, Billy struggled to live up to his unrealistic expectations. However, as Regan revealed Big Al's past through the multilayered storyline, it brought to mind the expression "Hurt people hurt people."
On the other hand, I disliked the oversharing of details that occasionally caused the pace to lag. For instance, I struggled to maintain interest in the play-by-play descriptions of more than one high school basketball game. In another example, Al Jr. related to a character in a movie, but the desired comparison could have been achieved without sharing so much of the movie's plot.
I rate Unopened Letters from Dead Men 4 out of 4 stars. Despite some extraneous details, the book is exceptionally edited, and Regan delivers an engaging story featuring complex characters. Readers should be aware that the book contains plot-related violence, profanity, and non-explicit sexual content.
Billy opened the door, got out and waited for Lonny to drive off to the end of the block and turn before climbing the concrete steps. He bent over and took the key from underneath the welcome mat and opened the door, making as little noise as possible, and stepped inside the dark foyer. He listened for movement for several seconds before finally shutting the door and climbing the steps. His footsteps were light until a loud creak came from a weak spot halfway up the stairs.
In the kitchen, a chair slid back and toppled over. Purposeful footsteps came toward him, and the foyer light came on, making his eyes squint until they focused on his father at the bottom of the stairs.
Billy tried to move further upstairs, away from his father’s presence. His father was in his 50s — with a receding hairline, not helped by his vain comb-over — but he was built as solidly now as ever.
“One for 6!” he said. “I’ve got to watch you stink up—”
“We won!” Billy said, his voice so loud it made his father recoil. “But you’d know that if you’d have stayed.” –Billy
Once he was close to his car, a cold breeze blew tiny snowflakes up the back of his neck, making him shiver. He stopped next to his car and fished around in his pocket for his keys, but the sound of crunching snow continued for a couple of seconds. Then it stopped.
Big Al took a deep breath and smiled. Soon he would be free of all his worries and mistakes. He’d never have to agonize over Billy’s future or spend another sleepless night wondering where he had gone wrong with Al Jr. Maybe Janet would explain it to him—explain everything. Maybe she’d be wearing the blue crepe dress she wore when she was dancing by the jukebox or the harvest sweatshirt she loved to bake in during the holidays.
Al Jr. had a headache, and he wished he’d left with Sara. He made his way through the cluttered partitions until he found the last room. There was not anyone in there, just junk. Pieces of broken chairs, tables and other mangled fixtures were strewn all over the place, littering so much of the floor he nearly tripped going across the room. On the other end of the room, a legless couch rested against the wall. The sparse light filtering in through the thin blanket covering the door was bright enough for him to be able to see springs sticking through some of the cushions. It would be better than lying sleepless on a concrete floor. He stepped over and around everything and collapsed onto the couch. A rodent scurried out of one of the cushions. But that didn’t bother him at all. One night in the jungle, he had awakened to see a snake crawling over his legs. He went back to sleep once it slithered off. Just like then, his eyelids felt so heavy he couldn’t keep them open, and as he began to drift off, a face began to form, taking shape so clearly it made him sit upright.
The face belonged to Chuck Ogilvy, a strapping young man from Alabama whose words always rolled out in hypnotic syllables. Many nights, Al Jr. had fallen asleep listening to him talking. And Chuck wasn’t just some scrub there to fight someone else’s mess because he didn’t have anywhere else to go. Al Jr. heard Chuck had turned down a football scholarship from Alabama to join the service. Al Jr. would’ve probably guessed something along those lines. Though Chuck was a big man — well over 6 feet tall, with wide, broad shoulders — he moved like a cat. He reminded Al Jr. of Dirk Smith, except Chuck wasn't a jerk Al Jr. would want to fight; he had a pleasant way about him. Chuck said his grandfather and father were disappointed he didn’t go to college, but he wanted to be like them and serve his country during a war. –Al Jr.