by John Burnham Schwartz
Reviewed by Sarah Weinman
What best characterizes a John Burnham Schwartz novel is a quote from Reservation Road, the 1998 novel that made his reputation (and was made into a far lesser film): "There are heroes, and there are the rest of us. There comes a time when you just let go the ghost of the better person you might have been." With vivid prose and boundless empathy, Schwartz digs deep into the psyches of his all-too-flawed characters, whether they are struggling to define true love (Claire Marvel), grappling with the constraints of Japanese monarchy (The Commoner) or, as in Reservation Road, caught in a spiral of guilt, grief and revenge stemming from a car accident that kills a 10-year-old boy on a deserted Connecticut road.
Those worlds are so self-contained, novel by novel, that it seems a surprise for Schwartz to return, in his new novel Northwest Corner, to the same cast of players from Reservation Road. But the passage of 12 years allows him to skew perspectives and shift points of view to reveal, even more penetratingly, how that single, terrible incident from long ago still hangs over the Arno and Learner families and has made them more distant, fractured and scattered -- just as a new, perspective-altering event emerges that may bring them all back together.
When Northwest Corner opens, Dwight Arno is several years removed from serving time in prison for the hit-and-run that killed young Josh Learner, and living a quiet, unassuming life in a Southern California suburb. His son Sam, now 22, is a baseball star at UConn with seemingly boundless potential, until the moment he isn't: a drunken brawl puts another athlete in the hospital and has Sam coming to grips with the violence within him. "The glimpse of his own nature that abruptly comes at him," Schwartz writes, "is a mental sucker punch."
With similar impulsiveness, Sam shows up at his father's doorstep, the first time they've seen each other in 12 years. The shock of that meeting comes through in Dwight's vaguely nonsensical opening gambit: "You left the door unlocked." And from that moment on, as Sam's legal troubles mount, as his mother, Ruth, now divorced from Dwight and a cancer survivor, asserts her own place in the story, and as another reckoning with the Learners looms in the distance, the Arno family's existential reality -- in which there is "nothing to say, but things get said anyway" -- shifts from unbearable pain to despair and, finally, redemption.
The power of Northwest Corner, as its geographical center moves from Connecticut to California and back again, is in the way it asks the hardest questions of human experience with subtle grace. Schwartz doesn't overplay or underplay; instead, he cedes the stage to his characters, be they the Arnos; the now-18-year-old Emma Learner, who is navigating the tricky intersection of intellectual maturity and emotional stuntedness; or Penny, a literature prof who wants to be Dwight's new love interest but senses a chasm deeper than she can fathom.
Their individual stories nest within a larger story of unresolved guilt, grief's aftermath and the struggle to find the light after years of living in darkness. But it's not exclusively a family's journey that Schwartz is trying to illuminate. Society delights in subjecting its shamed public figures to withering condemnation, then bestowing on them a feel-good shot of redemption. With quiet command, the author suggests a far less cathartic, more complicated reality -- that these damaged lives will forever be lived in the limbo between the two. It's the devastating endnote to one of the most emotionally commanding novels of the year.