In the book world, a prepublication buzz usually means somebody got lucky and landed a killer advance, or else there’s another reputation-razing biography in the works. Once in a while, though, it actually signals the arrival of something special — such as the emphatically positive word of mouth that heralded the release of this summer’s Reservation Road. Question is, can a taut psychological drama about ordinary people — no superlawyers, no fighter pilots, no vampires, no terrorists — compete in a blockbuster marketplace? Time will tell, but for now it’s enormously heartening to see John Burnham Schwartz’s indelible second novel launched with proper fanfare and a respectable first printing of 45,000 copies.
After an outdoor concert on a warm summer night, the Learner family of suburban Wyndham Falls, Conn., is driving home. But two apparently insignificant decisions — to take a shortcut, to stop at a service station — lead to staggering, permanent anguish. While Grace Learner accompanies her daughter, Emma, to the rest room, Ethan Learner steps inside the garage to purchase windshield-wiper fluid. Ten-year-old Josh stays behind, standing idly by the edge of Reservation Road. Suddenly, a midnight blue Ford Taurus blasts recklessly around a sharp curve and plows into the boy, killing him instantly. The car — driven by Dwight Arno, a local lawyer, whose own 10-year-old son is asleep beside him in the front seat — speeds on.
This is obviously not the first contemporary novel to deal with how an average family copes, or doesn’t cope, with unimaginable catastrophe (Rosellen Brown’s Before and After and Judith Guest’s Ordinary People come to mind). What distinguishes Reservation Road, however, is Schwartz’s uncanny, and unflinching, precision of insight, his genius for not just describing but evoking the hollowness of despair, its isolating corrosiveness, and often startling aggression. ”Without hope,” says Ethan, a bookish college professor now thirsting for vengeance, ”the need to punish is the one true religion. Blame must be fixed on some soul other than one’s own.”
Yet, for all of its careful, haunting characterization — Ethan’s self-annihilating rage, Grace’s eerie withdrawal from private and professional life (she’s a garden designer), and 8-year-old Emma’s engulfing confusion — the novel is never insular, or self-consciously literary. It has, in fact, all the relentless energy and crafty plotting of a first-rate thriller.
As the Learners struggle to survive their grief, Dwight Arno, the hit-and-run driver who brought it all on, discovers that ”not getting caught isn’t the same thing as being free.” Messily divorced, a borderline alcoholic, and a self-described failed dad, Arno is a chronic loser with a violent, uncontrollable temper. But he’s also a man who continues to grasp stubbornly at the image of his life as ”a bruised yet still decent enterprise.” In what just might be Schwartz’s nimblest feat, the novel’s obvious villain emerges as its most fascinating figure, and a pitifully sympathetic one.
After fleeing the scene of the accident (and explaining to his son that he’d hit a dog), Arno slides into a solitary hell of remorse. His legal career, on the skids to begin with, becomes a total shambles; he locks himself away at home, watching television and drinking beer: afraid to turn himself in, equally afraid not to. At last, the only means he can find to postpone suicide is to attach himself — secretly, dangerously, morbidly — to the family he shattered. He spies on Ethan, stalks Grace, then drives past the Learners’ house late at night, peering through lit windows, hoping to glimpse a sign, any sign, of continuing, recovering life inside. Like Ethan, who has taken it upon himself to identify and confront Josh’s killer, Arno yearns only for closure, for some measure of justice.
Eventually both men get what they seek. Reservation Road climaxes in a macabre showdown that thrums both with suspense (there’s a gun) and moral ambiguity (there’s a choice). But it’s the novel’s conclusion, as perfect as it is sudden, shocking, and completely unexpected, that’ll stick in your memory. This is one of those rare — very rare — novels that you don’t so much read as inhabit and that makes everyday life seem altogether mysterious and fragile, and infinitely perilous. A