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The Boston Phoenix Sins of the Father

Two men, divided by events, share the tragedy of loss in John Burnham Schwartz's psychological thriller.

By Adam Kirsch

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998: 

RESERVATION ROAD, by John Burnham Schwartz. Knopf, 292 pages, $24.

John Burnham Schwartz'S second novel is, at bottom, a genre piece: a detective story, opening with a crime and leading inexorably to the discovery of the criminal. But this crime story is only the starting point for what becomes a much more ambitious work. Psychologically subtle and acute, Reservation Road is obsessed with the most basic and terrible facts of humanity: the randomness of events, the irreversibility of loss, the impossibility of protection against life and its dangers. In nudging his sturdy, well-built suspense novel toward these wider speculations, Schwartz sometimes falls victim to portentousness. More often, however, he succeeds in writing a kind of philosophical noir, absorbing and often moving.

The novel begins, true to form, with a killing. Driving too fast late one night on Reservation Road, Dwight Arno, a divorced father rushing to get his son back to his ex-wife on time, hits a boy standing by the side of the road. The boy is Josh Learner, and his father, Ethan, turns around just in time to see the accident happen; Dwight, realizing that he has been seen (though not identified), hesitates a moment and then drives on. In this sudden, desperate attempt to flee, Dwight transforms an accident into a hit-and-run and makes himself a marked man. The rest of the novel is narrated in alternating chapters by Ethan and Dwight, broken up by brief glimpses of Ethan's wife, Grace. By allowing each man to tell his own story -- "I want to tell this right," Ethan begins; "There's the truth in there somewhere," Dwight says -- Schwartz prevents easy identification with either.

Ethan, the good father, is the natural hero of the story. Devastated, he cannot help turning the accident into a murder case, one with a guilty suspect who must be found and punished. But Dwight, we come to see, is not so much guilty as horribly unlucky. His life has already been marred by one act of violence against a child: on the night when his wife announced she was leaving him for another man, he struck at her and accidentally hit his son, Sam, breaking his jaw. This was the wrong turn that led him to his current predicament: living alone in a cheap tract house, working at a bad job, wanting only to rebuild his relationship with Sam. And it is the force of that desire that led him to flee the scene, knowing that another such tragedy would separate him from Sam for good. Gradually Schwartz allows us to see that Ethan and Dwight have the same motive: love of their children. It is this love that ruins Ethan's peace of mind by turning him into an avenger, and Dwight's by making him a fugitive.

Indeed, Schwartz urges on us a harsher but ultimately more accurate view of the accident: it is not a murder, as both Ethan and Dwight believe in their different ways, but simply an event, a fact. Ethan's revenge is only an attempt to enforce meaning on this fact: "Without hope, the need to punish is the one true religion. Blame must be fixed on some soul other than one's own. Justice must be done. Or else there is only the desert of grief and one's own footsteps upon it." And as the careful plot proceeds to its inevitable conclusion -- Ethan's discovery of Dwight -- the importance of that discovery seems to decline. When the confrontation finally takes place, it turns out to be terribly different from what either man imagined.

The doubling of consciousness in the novel, between Ethan and Dwight, is Schwartz's main achievement: each man seems full and real, each has the author's total sympathy. Schwartz makes the grief of losing a child come horribly to life: Ethan and Grace are plagued by sudden memories and failures of memory, by guilt and despair. But he is also able to convey the anxiety and desperation of Dwight, his frantic attempts to keep the crime from unraveling his life. And he has imagined the aftermath of such an accident meticulously: how the neighbors react, how the police try and fail to help.

Schwartz's writing is so cinematic that one feels a movie version was always in mind. Scenes are framed and tracked, information is provided in flashbacks, Ethan sees Josh in eminently filmable dreams and hallucinations. More troubling is the influence of the movies on the dialogue and internal narration, which occasionally has a canned sound ("You're fucking right I'm upset," Ethan says to a policeman after the accident). And Schwartz wanders occasionally into wooden, pretentious writing: "She sensed only how the notes touched the air as shadows will touch light, how all things return to their source without explanation, without shame." But these flaws do not detract from Reservation Road's successes: good craftsmanship, a fast pace, psychological power, and a persuasive view of the world.

Adam Kirsch is the literary assistant at the New Republic.

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