Northwest Corner: A Novel
- John Burnham Schwartz
- Random House
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by Alexander Dwinell
- August 29, 2011
After a decade, the author of Reservation Road revisits characters whose lives have been changed by crisis.
Reviewed by Alexander Dwinell
There are moments when everything changes so quickly that time seems to stop. And there are moments that seem to stretch for years, moments in which nothing appears to have changed and yet nothing is the same. John Burnham Schwartz’s twin novels, Reservation Road (1998) and Northwest Corner (2011), set and written over a decade apart, seek to capture those transformative moments when everything changes in an instant. In his latest, Schwartz also explores how his characters have evolved in the years between the two novels.
In Reservation Road, two families in suburban Connecticut are shattered after a hit-and-run accident in which Dwight Arno kills Ethan Learner’s 10-year-old son Josh. The Learner family is devastated by the loss of their child-prodigy son and the police’s inability to find his killer. And the Arno family, already breaking apart under Dwight’s violent outbursts, comes under increased pressure as Dwight wrestles with his guilt and his decision not to stop the car for fear of losing the already tenuous visitation rights to his own 10-year old son Sam (asleep in the car at the time of the accident). The story, mostly told through chapters alternating between Dwight and Ethan, reveals how they and their families attempt to survive this tragedy.
A decade later we return to the northwest corner of Connecticut to see which wounds have healed, which still gape, and how the shattered families deal with another morally ambiguous outbreak of violence. Northwest Corner begins with Sam Arno, Dwight’s son, striking out with the bases loaded in the 10th inning of his college baseball team’s playoffs. Striking out in the 9th is not enough for Schwartz; he wants his novel to go to 11. Trying to forget this failure, Sam finds himself in a bar, and then in a bar brawl, and then beating someone with his baseball bat. The injured man, not wanting to have the police involved, leaves the bar, as does Sam — first out of the bar and then out of the state. Laying claim to his lineage’s denial of responsibility for violent outbursts, Sam flees to California to see his father, Dwight, for the first time since the end of Reservation Road.
Dwight, having served his prison sentence and now working in a sporting goods store, is surprised to see Sam. They have had no contact for over a decade. Despite the violence motivating Sam’s appearance, Dwight welcomes the opportunity to reconnect. Ruth, Sam’s mother and Dwight’s ex-, flies to California to recover and protect her son, even though he is entering adulthood and can no longer be protected by his mother. Ruth is recently divorced from her second husband and recovering from breast cancer. This trip reunites her with Dwight for the first time in 10 years.
As with the set-up, Schwartz revisits his narrative approach, telling the story through short chapters ranging from a couple of paragraphs to a couple of pages and named after and loosely focusing on one or another of the main characters. The style — short phrases packed with details — is consistent across the chapters, but Schwartz continues his practice of only allowing the men, in this case Dwight, a first-person perspective. Other chapters, presented by an omniscient narrator, focus on Dwight’s ex-wife Ruth, his son Sam, Josh’s younger sister Emma and the only new character with her own chapter, Penny, a romance interest of Dwight who fades out toward the end of the novel. The absence of chapters headed by Grace and especially by Ethan, parents of the dead Josh, makes clear that this story is primarily about the Arno family; the disappearance of Ethan’s voice also serves as the update on his life — he appears to have almost completely vanished from his family.
Reservation Road tells the story of two families destroyed by crisis — the death of a child and the guilt in causing that death. However, the question driving Northwest Corner is whether a crisis can heal a family. As each character struggles with personal inadequacies and the difficult situations of his life, there seems no space for reconciliation. Yet, as Ruth and Dwight move to protect their son, they also move closer to each other. Will the criminal justice system reunite the Arno family?Perhaps this more traditional, more saccharine question, this prospect of a happy ending, is part of what makes Northwest Corner a less successful novel than Reservation Road. Schwartz does succeed in the challenge of writing a sequel that can stand alone. However, readers new to this novel may wonder why certain characters are in the story at all.
In the end, being a sequel works against the book. Schwartz is a skillful writer, able to capture complex emotions in deceptively simple sentences. If he were weaving from new threads (rather than reworking the strands of Reservation Road), he might have been able to create a more compelling story. Instead, he is caught between wanting to update the lives of his characters and tell a new story. The changes in the Learner family don’t bring much to the novel, and the main connection between the two families in this book is a bond between Sam and Emma. Their relationship has dramatic potential, and Schwartz could have created some Montague and Capulet frisson. Instead, what he creates between them is neither fully explained nor believable, and falls far short of the remorse and rage that joined the two families in Reservation Road. Fortunately, the connection between Ruth (who turns out to be the novel’s most complex character) and Dwight feels less contrived and provides the real tension.
The characters in John Burnham Schwartz’s novel Reservation Road are haunted by their past. And so, it appears, is Schwartz himself. Unfortunately, where in the first novel these ghosts helped propel the story, now, in Northwest Corner, they have turned on the author.
Alexander Dwinell, a Brooklyn-based editor and designer, is part of the South End Press collective, which has published such authors as Vandana Shiva, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Oscar Olivera as part of efforts to create social change. He has also managed bookstores in the U.S. and the U.K., toured in a punk band and worked to help prevent passage of the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement. He rides his bike nearly every day.