Will repost thought on this book after review published.
Will repost thought on this book after review published.
Last edited by leyla; 04-May-2012 at 12:35.
Erm, my formatting trick seems to lead to lots of stars and stripes, which is apt here but not so for non American authors. Still, it's better than the dense para of prose.
Fathers and sons: flaws loathed yet so often doomed to be repeated, and the basis of much great literature. The American writer John Burnham Schwartz's acclaimed novel Reservation Road, published in 1998, featured a small-town Connecticut lawyer, Dwight, whose intentions of being a good father - unlike his own - buckled under the compressive weight of circumstance. When his son, Sam was five, Dwight broke Sam's jaw in a blow intended for his wife, Ruth, who had announced she wanted a divorce. In 1994, when Sam was ten, Dwight was involved in a hit- and-run, driving into a boy from Sam's school class and fleeing the scene. Dwight's last contact with Sam was kissing him after promising to take him out later that afternoon. He turned himself in and spent 30 months in prison, after which he moved to California.
In this sequel, it's now 2006, and Dwight is managing a sporting goods store in California. He's had no contact with his ex wife or son for twelve years, and is in the early stages of a new relationship with an English professor called Penny. But back in Connecticut, history is repeating itself. Sam, who has nursed a brooding anger since his father left, has failed his university baseball team. Since sport has been his only salvation these past 12 years, he is plunged into despair, and it is in this state - 'something inside him has ruptured; something hideous has come out of hiding. He is leaking enough poison to kill another man, or himself'- that he lashes out, with disastrous results. Glimpsing a momentary escape route - ' ...a narrow pathway carved by violence, to the door'- he makes the same mistake as his father and runs away, ending up taking buses for 72 hours to find his estranged father.
Northwest Corner is a novel about fathers and sons making peace and about people seeking forgiveness in society and in love. As Dwight puts it, 'If you turn yourself in for a crime, you will earn your shot at redemption. But there's a statute of limitations...wait too long to speak up, and you might just miss your shot, you may do your time but you will never really get out.'
Of course, every crime has a victim, and in Reservation Road, the victims were the family of the slain boy, Josh Learner. Josh's father, a respected literature professor and critic, and Josh's mother, a successful garden designer, fell quietly apart, divorcing nine years later. Their daughter Emma, two years younger than Josh and Sam, felt guilty in the way children of divorce and family death often do.
As in Reservation Road, chapters in Northwest Corner are related from the perspective of different characters. Dwight's is the only first person account, while Sam, Ruth, Emma and Penny's chapters are narrated in the third person. As with many great American novels, the main male protagonists are deeply flawed. Dwight's physical attacks on Ruth when married to her were few in number, but deeply traumatised Sam. Like Updike's Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom, Dwight perceives a more acceptable version of himself than do those close to him: even while he berates himself for deserting his son, he is largely oblivious to his broken promises to his ex wife, such as assuring her he would pay to re-position the kitchen sink to face the back yard instead of an ugly interior wall. He spent the money on a work-room for himself, which he used only a handful of times.
Another similarity Dwight has to Harry Angstrom is his weakness - while married to Ruth he had an affair. In a third echo, the middle-aged Dwight hopes for a sign of recognition when playing a sport - softball in this case - with younger players, as does Harry at the beginning of Rabbit, Run. Sam, from whom Dwight craves the eye contact, cuts him dead by withholding it, not due to any conscious effort but to the age-old truth that young people don't know the desperation for rejuvenation and acceptance of old sports players playing team games with them.
Unlike Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe, Dwight's self analysis isn't excruciatingly slow and methodical. It's expressed more in personal reminiscences and wise insights, with levity in the form of irascibility and growling sarcasm. When he notices Ruth's second ex husband, Norris, in the vicinity, he harrumphs ' I can sense his insinuating, low-wattage ambience, like a cheap scented candle.' When Sam seeks legal advice from Dwight's ex partner Cutter, Dwight yaps and nips like a rabid terrier, his inner commentary flowing with derogatory remarks: 'Here Cutter takes a few moments to...allow for applause. Looking up again, he does everything but bow to the wings.' And his matter-of-fact appraisal of the overnight dumping of friends is refreshingly frank: ' You can think you're best pals with someone, sit across from him at lunch week in and week out yucking it up over the same tired jokes, then the next thing you know, one afternoon the mere sight of him chewing with his mouth open makes you sick.'
In contrast to the reader being nestled inside Dwight's head, Sam and the other characters' thoughts are more opaque, illuminated through behaviour in the way Richard Yates's dysfunctional characters are. Occasionally this view spools further out, so that not only is the reader viewing an individual from outside, but an omniscient 'we' enters proceedings, moving the reader further away and rendering the character's behaviour less rational in the way that a stranger's bizarre behaviour in public is incomprehensible devoid of their inner monologue, as here: ' Let's go to the videotape, shall we: mother mumbles generic apology for deranged on-court behaviour...' If we each make perfect sense in our own heads, how strange and futile our human actions look from afar.
Schwartz is capable of snatched moments of lyrical beauty, each lasting only a sentence or so, and thus avoiding weight and verbosity. The wariness of sounding pompous that's characteristic of many contemporary writers, especially American ones, is evident in the touches of repulsion brought to some of these poetic moments, as here, on Sam's arrival in California: ' A light breeze blowing in from the west. In it the fermented whiff of his own body and what he hopes might be the briny breath of the Pacific. Though right now he can't see his way to the ocean; just the sourceless egg-blue light everywhere and the vertiginous, faintly swaying palms along the broad sunbaked streets whose brightness has begun to infect him like the onset of motion sickness.'
The first sentence in the quote above also illustrates one of Schwartz's stylistic tics - sentences that might easily be incorporated as clauses into longer sentences. Some of these lack a verb: 'The bat still on his shoulder.' ' The bat sinking into another man's flesh.' 'The white-painted metal still warm from the afternoon.' This reader found these staccato bursts of description accentuated the impact of the information they imparted, much as James Frey's largely punctuation-free text does in Bright, Shiny Morning; but purists might find them irritating in the way this reader does Nadine Gordimer's idiosyncratic and undemotic syntax.
Schwartz's metaphors are strong if unsubtle. Sam surveys a bald patch in his mother's lawn on which the recently departed Norris expended hours, and mulls over the 'places whose troubled history cannot be cured by tonics, potions, and other people's seed.' Thinking of the absurd and officious Norris's seed induces queasiness, notwithstanding the effectiveness of the metaphor for this mentally impotent stepfather and second husband. In a pizza place where Emma and her estranged parents eat on the day they both come separately to settle her into Yale, is a saw cutter which 'rests on their table like the symbol of an amputation none of them dare acknowledge.' The image carries clout as a representation of the severance of the grief-stricken Ethan from the family.
If coincidences were too copious in Reservation Road, in which Ruth was Emma's music teacher and Sam was in Josh's class at school, here the implausibility lies in the serendipitous simultaneity with which a main character and his love interest, who have pined for each other for years, discover that their love for the other is more fraternal than passionate.
Schwartz has created a compelling novel about redemption and reconciliation, two goals humans have and will crave for centuries. In an arena not short of timeless greats, this novel more than holds its own.