Northwest Corner

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July 27, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT

Before picking up Northwest Corner, I had whipped through four adrenaline-fueled, plot-driven thrillers in as many days. John Burnham Schwartz’s follow-up to his masterful 1998 family tragedy, Reservation Road, was a heady antidote: poetic, introspective, evocative. And no, those words aren’t code for ”boring.” Northwest Corner ranks up there as one of the most gut-wrenching books I’ve ever read.

Dwight Arno, the man at the heart of Reservation Road (which was made into a 2007 movie starring Mark Ruffalo), is now 50. In Road he accidentally hit and killed a child while driving; now, his prison time served, he plods through his days as manager of a dreary sporting-goods store, haunted by memories of his past life. ”I still remember what it feels like to be that man,” he says, ”and not a morning goes by that I don’t see his striving, confident image in the mirror of my thoughts.”

Then his son Sam, whom he has not seen in 12 years, lands on Dwight’s doorstep, on the run after clobbering someone with a metal bat in a bar fight. ”I wanted to hurt him,” Sam admits to his dad. And that is the bitter, awful truth that father and son must work through as they struggle to patch their tattered relationship: Deep down, they harbor the same dark impulses. They can succumb to them, or they can take a shot at redemption. The choice is theirs.

The story emerges, slowly at first, not just from their viewpoints but from those of their girlfriends as well as Sam’s mother. Multiple viewpoints are usually jarring, interrupting the flow of a novel, but not here: In Schwartz’s hands, the narrative unfolds delicately, each chapter a puzzle piece that fits seamlessly into the whole. It’s painful to watch the two men confront their lives — but it’s also exhilarating. A

Northwest Corner

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