Friday, September 30, 2011

A story started in Reservation Road concludes in Northwest Corner

Book 97: Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz

Book 104: Northwest Corner by John Burnham Schwartz

Guilt, not grief, is the emotion that runs through John Burnham Schwartz's story of a 10-year-old boy who is struck and killed by a hit and run driver.

It is not only the driver of the car who experiences guilt, but the dead boy's father and mother and little sister.  Each one is imprisoned by a mantra of "if only."

If only I had not had to pee. If only I had ordered him away from the highway. If only . . .  It is a sad and isolating refrain that rings true, yet is truly false. We cannot know if the smallest change in behavior by a member of Josh Learner's family on that summer evening could have saved him.  

That might have made an interesting story, but it is not the one Schwartz chose to write. Instead, equally engrossing, is his account of how guilt fractures the lives, marriages, careers and relationships of those near to Josh's unfortunate death; not only the Learner family, but Dwight Arno, who was driving the car that struck Josh.

We see the slow dissolution of the Learner marriage. The couple is buried so deeply in their individual grief and guilt that they are unable to find solace in one another. Already divorced when we meet him, Dwight Arno is a dissolute man whose life, already fraying at the edges, now unravels entirely.

Saddest of all is the impact on the Learner's daughter, Emily, and Dwight's son, Sam. It is as if three children died that night.  

Unable to comfort themselves, there is no chance that the Learners can comfort Emily. The reader hopes that she is the light that will lead them away from their despond. If you can't shake your grief on your own do it for Emily. Instead, they grow increasingly remote. 

Between his fear of losing his son and his violent responses, Dwight steadily pushes Sam away.

Some of the questions unanswered in Reservation Road are resolved in Northwest Corner, which revisits the characters 12 years later.  (Real time and fictional time are almost identical. Reservation Road was released in 1998. Northwest Corner appears in the bookstores 13 years later.)

The story focuses largely on the Arnos.  Sam, about to graduate college in Connecticut, unexpectedly shows up on his father's doorstep in California.  He has been involved in a bar fight. His assailant, another student, is near death in a local hospital.

Dwight's life is back on track, following a brief prison sentence. Sam's sudden reappearance in his life is welcome, yet threatens to undermine the shaky foundation on which Dwight's life rests.

Has the violence Dwight exhibited during Sam's childhood tainted the boy's entire life? How do Dwight and Sam bridge a gulf created by distance, lies, prison and violence? Will Sam be just another victim of that summer night when Josh Learner died and Dwight Arno fled in confusion and fear?

To answer these questions would be to deny the reader the pleasure of discovering the answers for himself. It is enough to say that the story which started in Reservation Road with a violent death concludes in Northwest Corner with promise and a kiss.

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