Reservation Road: A Novel by John Burnham Schwartz (Vintage Contemporaries, $15.00, 304 pages)
“Our love is like our music, it’s here and then it’s gone.” Jagger/Richards
Reservation Road was the second novel from John Burnham Schwartz, author of The Commoner. It is a tale of psychological suspense made all the more interesting as it is told through the thoughts of three characters (Ethan, a college professor; Grace, his wife; and Dwight, the man whose actions cause the death of Ethan and Grace’s son). Ethan is a literature professor at a small college in New England, whose life is on course until…
Returning late from an outing, the family makes an unscheduled stop at a gas station on Reservation Road. As Grace and daughter Emma go in to use the rest room at the almost-abandoned gas station, Ethan and son Josh wait near the side of the road. In a matter of mere seconds, a car driven recklessly by Dwight hits and kills 10-year-old Josh. Life will never be the same for Ethan and Grace Learner…
Life, in fact, becomes “too much to bear” for the Learners. Grace becomes paralyzed by her grief and Ethan moves on driven strictly by thoughts of revenge against the hit-and-run driver who killed his son. Dwight, by contrast, is a man who has already ruined his life, his marriage and his legal career due to his recklessness and violence. He becomes “like many whose lives are fueled largely by regret.” He’s a dead man walking who eventually does “not seem to care any longer what happened to him.”
Schwartz does a masterful job of building and maintaining suspense through this novel’s 292 pages even though the denouement is obvious… When the criminal justice system fails to find the man who so tragically killed Josh, we know deep down – as does Dwight – that Ethan will find him. And what then?
But this is more than just a crime mystery. It is a quasi-morality play about how people deal with losses – death and separation – in their lives. We see how some rebound to live again and others never recover. What is the line from Neil Young? “On the day that she left he died but it did not show.” This is a story about Ethan and Grace, who lose part of their life (their reason to exist) late; and of Ethan, who has lost his strength and his will to survive early on.
At the end of Reservation Road, Ethan finds Dwight and gets to serve as his judge, jury and – perhaps – his executioner. What happens? You’ll have to read Schwartz’s Reservation Road to find out.
Note: This book was purchased by the reviewer at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon.