In “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley,” Hannah Tinti uses the mythical labors of Hercules as a springboard for a modern-day examination of the meaning of heroism. Even if there are no Nemean lions to capture, hydras to slay or Augeian stables to be cleaned in one day, the title character of this boisterous novel, like the Greco-Roman strongman, strives to make up for the sins of his past and ultimately earn a shot at immortality.

Tinti, who grew up in Salem, Massachusetts, spun an extravagant tale of 19th-century grifters adrift in a slightly alternate New England in her debut novel, “The Good Thief.” With her much-anticipated new book, she moves the primary setting to contemporary Massachusetts, with side trips to locales that include Alaska, Wyoming and North Carolina.

When professional thief Samuel Hawley brings his young daughter, Loo, to the Massachusetts seaside town of Olympus (standing in for real-life Gloucester), he’s tired of being on the run and wants to settle down where Lily, his deceased wife and Loo’s mother, grew up. At first it’s an uncomfortable fit as Hawley tries to earn a living as a fisherman, despite the underhanded efforts of his chief competitors.

He’s also preparing for the day when his past might catch up with him. Tinti writes: “Hawley was always watching. Always waiting. He got the same look when they went into town for supplies, when the mailman came to their door, when a car pulled alongside them on the road.”

Hannah Tinti Photo by Honorah Tinti

When Loo is 12 years old, Hawley teaches her how to fire a gun, and he’s good at conveying hard-won lessons in survival. What doesn’t get talked about in their household is what happened to Loo’s mother. Hawley keeps a kind of shrine of photos and mementos to her in their bathroom, but he isn’t forthcoming with many details.

As Loo grows up, she longs to know more about Lily and goes looking for knowledge in dangerous places. The reader encounters Lily only in flashback, but she’s a dynamic presence in the narrative.

Hawley is fashioned to be a classic reluctant hero, a no-nonsense, tight-lipped man who will do anything to protect the ones he loves and suffers mightily when he fails. His daughter proves equally tough-minded. Whether she’s dealing with bullies, her estranged grandmother or the local boy she comes to love, Loo faces each rite of passage – first kiss, first job, first heartbreak – with grit and a steel-eyed determination.

Both Hawley and Loo make all kinds of bad decisions, but it’s hard not to forgive them as they try to do right and still deal with their feelings of disconnection and loneliness.

Hawley is right to be overly cautious. Early in the book, he enters Olympus’s Greasy Pole Contest, a local tradition involving skill, determination, luck and a drunken willingness to get hurt. When he removes his shirt to traverse a slicked-up, 45-foot telephone pole and grab a red flag, he reveals that his body bears the physical evidence of decades of hard living. He’s marked by nearly a dozen bullet wounds, some minor, some near-lethal, at least one self-inflicted: “Across his body were rounded scars – bullet holes, healed over. One hole in his back, a second through his chest, a third near his stomach, a fourth in his left shoulder, another through his left foot.”

Hawley’s victory in the Greasy Pole Contest earns him the respect of his new neighbors. The old wounds are old news to Loo, of course, and they remind his daughter of craters on the moon. Like that pockmarked satellite, “Hawley was always circling between Loo and the rest of the universe.”

The narrative of “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley” is structured so the main plot moves forward, while every other chapter flashes back to some earlier violent episode. The past and the present work in counterpoint across the years, heading toward a final confrontation that will test the bravery, resourcefulness and fortitude of both father and daughter.

Alternating flashbacks can be a dangerous storytelling technique, interrupting the main plot just as it gathers momentum. But Tinti expertly doles out and withholds information, dropping clues and amplifying the suspense with each backward-looking interlude, until all the details fall into place and drive the action to its explosive climax. Full of unpredictable twists, each “bullet chapter” complements the next step in Loo’s coming-of-age story. In less skilled hands, the mix of genres might grate, but Tinti justifies each of her choices.

Funny, suspenseful and heartbreaking, “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley” is an engrossing story, a deeply pleasurable yarn, the kind that’s easy to get lost in. Tinti has set herself a herculean literary task, and she accomplishes it, not with brute force, but with wit, aplomb and a love of adventure.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

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