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"People like to think that what they do actually matters",
This review is from: Await Your Reply (Hardcover)
In this somber novel of mistaken identity and identity theft, the unexpected threads of three characters converge. The enigmatic high school teacher George Orson escapes with Lucy one of his students to temporarily live in the lighthouse Hotel, his family home in Nebraska. Here amid the dry wind, the hard weather, the dust and on the edge of a dry lakebed, here George tells Lucy that here they will stay for just a short time until they figured things out: "just until the heat was off a bit." Lucy goes along with him because she has to admit that things could be worse, she could still be living in Pompey, Ohio, but George has led her to believe that they are going to be rich while also making a clean break and a new life. Meanwhile, Miles heads towards the isolated town of Inuvik and the wide delta that leads to the Arctic Ocean - and also - where he hopes to find his twin brother Hayden - who has been missing for more than ten years.
Back in Cleveland where he and Hayden had grown up, Miles led a fractured existence had a job managing a store that dealt primarily in magicians' equipment and worrying about his brother. When Hayden's letter arrives, full of fantastical descriptions of invented landscapes, angry rants about human overpopulation, and late-night suicidal regrets, Miles feels the same urgency he felt when Hayden had first run away from home all those years ago that he could find him, catch him and help him. A troubled, and isolated loner, Hayden has had a difficult life at best, a schizophrenic and a genius with delusions of grandeur, he's spent much of his early life paranoid, convinced that people were out to get him. For years and years Miles had been a willing participant in his twin brother's fantasies. But who actually is Hayden and what is the connection he has with the young and naive Ryan who gets roped into a business venture with his "Uncle Jay Kozelek?" Jay, the jailbird the hobo who never owned anything he couldn't carry, is in fact Ryan's biological father.
Chaon walks the reader through a veritable dreamscape, each character on a ragged trajectory towards each other - from the American Midwest to the artic circle and then onto Africa - as Miles, Lucy and Ryan become caught up in the shady connections of Hayden. Lucy needs to think over her choices prudently even though she's well aware that George is engaged in activity that is illegal; she was also aware there was a lot he hadn't told her - a lot of secrets. But she's willing to take the risk after her parents' deaths, despite the terrible situation of her home life, and the bills that she and her sister Patricia could barely pay. She's convinced she's walking in some dreamscape, everything glowing with an aura of déjà vu. Meanwhile, Ryan ends up in Vegas, using laminated false ID's to get money in one of Jay's elaborate scams and is forced to deal with his father's unpredictable bursts while wondering why he abandoned his loving parents and a good college education to become a petty con man, a professional liar and thief.
A terrifyingly grizzly torture scene bookends this novel, it is Hayden who proves to the be the ultimate driving force, a shady and illusory figure who slips into a new identity "as smooth as a feather. However, he is unaware of the looming threat and the futile search by Miles who becomes embroiled in what appears to be a wild goose chase, a weather station in the artic circle which provides the final stroke in the mystery of his brother's life. Like a delicate piece of string, Chaon moves his protagonists purposefully toward a final showdown as devastating as the opening chapter of the novel. When Ryan makes a terrible mistake, the result is catastrophic and all the ideas and expectations that had been so solid only a few weeks ago are suddenly erased and the future becomes "like a city never visited." The themes are abandonment and loneliness, these isolated characters all dealing with it in various ways, from Lucy who is surreptitiously pulled into George's past to Miles as he revisits Hayden's breakdowns, the past lives and spirit cities, the various identities he inhabited, and the emails and letters and clues that mapped out in a type of treasure hunt. All the while, Chaon revels in his characters deepest insecurities and past existences. But perhaps in the end it is the Machiavellian Hayden who craves adulation the most even as we never really get a clear picture of who he really is. Mike Leonard 2009.