Northwest Corner revisits the characters from John Burnham Schwartz's earlier novel, Reservation Road, twelve years on. Whilst this offers readers of that book a chance to find out what has changed and developed for the characters, equally I don't think it's necessary to have read that book to enjoy and get a lot out of this one. However, if you are intending to read Reservation Road first, the review below may 'spoil' it, so please bear this in mind.
It's 2006, and Dwight Arno is working as a manager in a sporting goods store in Arenas, California, living alone and reflecting on his life. Now 50, he was involved in a tragic accident twelve years earlier, and went to prison. He is dating Penny, who he hasn't told about his troubled past. His son Sam is feeling very negative about himself, and troubled. He is at University in Connecticut, but after an incident in a baseball game, he heads to a bar, and gets into a serious fight; 'something inside him has ruptured; something hideous has come out of hiding,' and then he flees far away to California, to his father. Sam's unexpected appearance is a complete shock for Dwight, who hasn't seen his son since the accident all those years before, and his arrival means that Dwight's steady existence is shaken up, his hidden past has suddenly caught up with his present, and the guilt resurfaces.
Ruth, Sam's mother, is fighting a private battle of her own, when she learns of Sam's disappearance. Penny wonders whether Dwight will open up to her. Emma, the sister of Josh Learner, the boy killed by Dwight in the hit and run accident twelve years' previously, has a complex relationship with Sam.
This novel is written in short chapters, with the narrative moving from character to character. Dwight's point of view is given in the first person, the others - Sam, Ruth, Penny and Emma - are all in the third person, so to me Dwight felt like the anchor at the centre of the story, whose life and actions impacted on all the others.
This is a fairly slow-moving novel, a contemplative look at people's lives, their relationships, the everyday struggles that people face. I felt that the characters all seemed to have a lot of issues, to dislike themselves at times. They are looking back on their pasts, the mistakes and the missed opportunities., and trying to work out the way to move forward, because that's all they can do. The way the author tackles these relationships, where family haven't seen each other or spoken for years, but how the bonds are never broken no matter how far apart you are physically and emotionally is very convincing. The tension is palpable as Dwight tries to reconnect with Sam but finds it incredibly difficult; 'my son beside me yet miles distant...to build a solid, lasting bridge between two people, let alone a father and son with a history like ours, is a mighty human endeavor...' Dwight observes his son, 'a muscle twitching in his jaw, biting down furiously on all the words he'll never say,' and for me, this is at the heart of the novel, and the characters; I found myself thinking, are any of them going to say what they actually feel towards each other?
This is not to say that the story is told without humour. I loved this bittersweet passage about Ruth and Sam, which sums up the gulf between the idyll and the reality:
'She makes her mother's meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and thin coaster-size disks of grilled eggplant with extra-virgin olive oil, and they sit down to Sunday supper as if it's old family times. The only missing ingredients are: (a) conversation, (b) appetites, (c) a bottle of good red wine, and (d) old family times.'
The quintessentially American love of baseball provides a lovely metaphor of how Dwight wishes things could be between him and his son, as he had imagined it when he was younger and Sam was little:
'My sense of things then was of an extended warm-up between two teammates old and young, the sweet early innings of what would eventually become a long, meaningful game stretching through the afternoon hours and into the starlit evening of our lives...Of course, for many reasons, things did not turn out that way.'
I really like this sort of novel, which gets to the heart of difficult, mixed-up lives and relationships, and I would recommend it.