‘A tale of a modern American family’ – Northwest Corner by John Burnham Schwartz

After losing the big play-off game, Sam Arno, star slugger from the Universityof Connecticut’s baseball team, goes to a bar to drown his sorrows. It’s there that he finally decides to swing his bat for the first time that night, a full-forced strike to another guy’s gut. And Sam makes a run for it, but not home. He crosses the country to his father’s house in California.

Sam hasn’t seen Dwight in twelve years. The last time was shortly after Dwight ran over a kid with his car and kept driving. Young Sam was in the back seat. Dwight’s moral struggle after the boy’s death was the subject of Schwartz’s 1998 acclaimed novel, Reservation Road. In Northwest Corner, it looks like Dwight has passed on his hit and run reflex, but can he help his son avoid the same mistakes he made? Can he stop Sam turning out like him, a professional career ruined and living alone at 50? Does he even have the right to tell Sam what to do after such a long absence as his father?

Just as in Reservation Road, there is no manhunt to bring the suspect to justice, no tenacious detective on Sam’s trail, or murderous brothers hell-bent on revenge. Instead, Schwartz creates suspense from simple situations, from the interactions between his finely spun web of characters. He mixes everyday incidents with exceptional emotions, revealing the pressures and choices individual family members can face in a crisis.

Each short chapter provides a different perspective, alternating between Sam, his mother, Dwight, and a recurring cast of surrounding personalities. But Schwartz avoids the tedium of telling every side of the same story, instead he takes one story and sticks with it, seamlessly switching points of view like Scorsese cuts between camera angles.

At the end of one early chapter, Dwight phones Ruth, his ex-wife and Sam’s mother, to tell her that her son has suddenly appeared at his house and that he, Dwight, just needs some time to sort him out. ‘Her laugh is so grimly sardonic that it causes the skin on my back to prickle. And then … she hangs up.’ The next chapter switches to Ruth sitting on the bed, and ‘still holding the phone, she makes her way to the bathroom, unsure whether to pee or throw up.’

Each carefully considered character shift provides an understanding of the motives and effects of each character’s actions, and cleverly builds one dramatic irony on top of another. With all the pressure piling on top of Sam, for example, he could almost be forgiven for the occasional careless remark to his mother, if it wasn’t for his tactless timing. Ruth had just met her ex-husband – the one after Dwight – who told her he’s remarrying.

Northwest Corner is a tale of a modern American family, and how, even after divorce, death and long-term separation, it can be difficult to truly escape the past. In the land of the free, Schwartz seems to say, everyone is trapped in their own little life. He sums up this notion best after Sam arrives at the Greyhound bus station inLas Vegas: ‘No one in the world knows where he is. This could be freedom, except it pretty clearly isn’t.’

Any Cop?: It’s easy to get lost in this sequel without reading the first book, but if you do you’ll soon be tracking down Reservation Road, and everything else John Burnham Schwartz has ever written.

Jim Dempsey

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