Much like the character Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s highly revered novel Slaughterhouse-Five, 82-year-old watchmaker Sheldon Horowitz has become unstuck in time in Derek B. Miller’s formidable literary debut, Norwegian by Night. Widowed and suffering from dementia, Horowitz fights his ongoing war on several fronts: with his granddaughter, who has dragged him against his will to Norway; with his aging body; with his guilt over being unable to protect his son against the Viet Cong; and with his recollections of his own service in the Korean War.
Suddenly, all those conflicts are forced to take a back seat to one that is far more real, far more imminent—and far more lethal. An upstairs neighbor entrusts her son with Horowitz in a moment of need, and Horowitz’s Marine Corps training kicks into high gear as he tries to protect the young boy, and himself, from harm.
Miller adroitly keeps the reader’s focus balanced on the knife-edge of admiring Horowitz’s ingenuity and questioning his sanity as the octogenarian and his young charge attempt to elude the police, the bad guys and the voices in his head. His counterpoint, plain-faced, plain-spoken policewoman Sigrid Ødegård, plumbs the proportions of the crime at hand, trying to fit a frame around a series of possibly, but improbably, related events. The intertwined narratives ultimately converge like pincers, inexorably trapping both the bad guys and the reader in their grip.
In many ways, the book recalls Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow, not only because they are both set in Scandinavia, but because their protagonists are each outsiders. Horowitz’s identity as a Jew sets himself apart from his reluctantly adoptive home, as does his identity as an American. Miller himself is both Jewish and American, living in Norway with a Norwegian wife, so it’s little surprise that the interplay among these three distinct cultures would function as a focal point. That said, Horowitz is no cartoon cutout; he’s the prickly pear of guy you might sort-of know, and roughly like, from a deli, or a pharmacy, or a watch repair shop.
Miller, who is both the director of The Policy Lab and a senior fellow with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, manages to corral both external and internal conflict into a vivid, cohesive and compelling narrative in this darkly humorous first novel. His dexterity at crafting both character and plot portend well for the future.
Thane Tierney lives in Los Angeles, and is transfixed by the sound of Norway’s hardingfele, known in English as the hardanger fiddle.