Northwest Corner: A Novel by John Burnham Schwartz (Random House, $26.00, 285 pages)
“The promises they made to each other were hastily scribbled IOUs…”
“Too bad, isn’t it, how the things that one has so long prayed for never do happen the way one wants them to, and never without a price.”
If you loved the novel, or the film version of, Reservation Road the good news is that Northwest Corner revisits the original characters approximately twelve years later. The bad news is that, well, there’s a lot of it…
Reservation Road was a tale of psychological suspense, and Schwartz’s strength was in building and maintaining that suspense. In Reservation Road and The Commoner, Schwartz insisted that the reader be patient, promising that the effort would be paid in full at the end of these novels. There was a sense of quiet determination in the earlier novels, tales that were populated with good people experiencing bad things.
All of this has changed with Northwest Corner, which starts off as too loud and too busy. I got the impression that Schwartz had written this having in mind someone at an airport shop, thirteen or fourteen months from now, who picks up the trade paperback version and wants to be sure there’s enough action in it to fill a flight from the west coast to Atlanta. As it begins, this latest work has too much anger, too much violence, too many sexual scenes (that seem to fall from the sky without context), and is filled with too many unlikable individuals.
The latter is a key point. In Reservation Road, we focused on the innocent Learner family whose young son is killed in a tragic accident. We observe the Learner’s lives fall apart, as college professor Ethan seeks to get revenge from the man called Dwight – the man who ran over his son. Unfortunately, Ethan early on disappears from the story in Northwest Corner, so the story instead focuses on Dwight, the former attorney who has divorced his wife and moved to Santa Barbara. (Dwight now works in a sporting goods store as a clerk. How he can afford to live in Santa Barbara, as an ex-convict, is never explained.)
This tale is about Dwight, his college baseball playing son who almost kills a man – and who, like his father before him, seeks to run from the consequences of his actions – Dwight’s weak and ill former spouse, and his new girlfriend who plays too much tennis and teaches at UCSB. Again, not one of these characters is one we can identify with, which makes the 285 pages of the read seem much more than that. The truth is, the typical reader will not care what happens to these characters, as they all seem to view life as some type of evil trap that’s enveloped them without cause or reason.
“The place called home is the one place you can drive into at night after a lifetime away, with no light to see by, and still know exactly where you are.”
John Burnham Schwartz’s first two novels felt, to this reader, like home. This one, sadly, felt like a trip to a strange place filled with ugly and dangerous people.
A review copy was provided by the publisher. Northwest Corner will be released on July 26, 2011.