August 2011

The mistakes of the fathers

By John Burnham Schwartz
Review by
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John Burnham Schwartz introduced readers to two Connecticut families inextricably bound by tragedy in his breakout novel Reservation Road (1999). In this sequel, which stands brilliantly on its own, he revisits those characters 12 years later. In the earlier novel, Dwight Arno left the scene of a hit-and-run accident resulting in the death of Josh Learner, a 10-year-old classmate of his son, Sam. He was disbarred, went to prison, and after his release, left his wife Ruth and Sam and moved across the country to Santa Barbara.

Sam is now 22 and just a month away from his graduation from ­UConn when he gets in the middle of a bar fight after losing his final baseball game of the season. He drives his bat into his assailant’s stomach, sending him to the hospital. Sam flees to Santa Barbara, despite the years that have passed since he last saw his father—somehow sensing that only Dwight will understand his need to escape the shame and disgrace in which he is suddenly mired.

In Northwest Corner, Schwartz delicately explores this broken father-son relationship, and how Dwight and Sam begin to reach out to one another—awkwardly at first, then with increasing empathy for the guilt and self-hatred each has experienced. Male characters are Schwartz’s forte, but his perceptive portrayal of Dwight’s ex-wife Ruth is also unerring, as he paints her gradual realization that, though she has been Sam’s primary caregiver and confidante for the last 12 years, in crisis he is drawn to his father: his comrade in shame. And in chapters written in the voices of Josh Learner’s mother Grace and sister Emma, Schwartz subtly depicts the ripple effects of Josh’s death throughout each of their lives.

In short, finely honed chapters, Schwartz examines the state of mind of each of these wounded souls, drawing the reader into their fragile lives. This is a brilliant exposure of one modern family in moral crisis, a story that in some way touches each of us.

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Northwest Corner

Northwest Corner

By John Burnham Schwartz
Random House
ISBN 9781400068456

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