Reservation Road

In John Burnham Schwartz's fine first novel, "Bicycle Days" (1989), he wrote a coming of age tale from the somewhat autobiographical perspective of the son.With his stunning new second novel, "Reservation Road," this gifted young writer has grown so much in both skill and, presumably, life experience, that he tells the tale from the perspective of two very different fathers, linked together by a devastating tragedy."Explain this to me: One minute there is a boy, a life thrumming with possibilities, and the next there are marked cars and strangers in uniform and the fractured whirling lights. And that, suddenly, is all the world has to offer." This is the voice of Ethan Learner, a college professor and devoted father and husband who has just seen his firstborn son killed by a hit and run driver."There's the truth in there somewhere; there's the beginning. I took my ten-year-old son to Fenway to see the Sox play the Yankees, Clemens dueling Key. We drove two and a half hours to get there. I'd gotten box seats, and Sam spent most of the game standing with his chin just above the railing, looking down over third base, his hands clenched into fists. It felt, for a while, like a perfect day." This is the voice of Dwight Arno, a down-on-his-luck, divorced attorney, setting the stage for telling the reader how he came to hit and kill a young boy with his car.From those moments on, the fate of these two men and their families are forever intertwined in this harrowing psychological thriller. In a true accomplishment for a writer, Schwartz proves that there are two sides to every story and skillfully keeps both of them on track as they move toward an inevitable, unforgettable showdown."Reservation Road" opens with the accident itself, propelling the reader from the opening pages directly into the inner world of its characters. The Learner family -- professor Ethan, garden designer Grace and their two children, Josh, a musical prodigy, and his younger sister Emma -- are driving home from an outdoor concert on a beautiful summer night. They take a shortcut down Reservation Road and make an unexpected stop at a gas station, where Josh, while standing too close to the road, is hit by a car careening recklessly around a sharp curve.Ethan, Grace and Emma each take personal blame for stopping at the station, knowing that had they not done so, Josh would still be alive. Their guilt, sadness and anger consume them as they struggle to come to terms with his death and face putting their lives as a family back together, but no one does more so than the hapless Dwight.A failure as a father, a so-so lawyer and not much of a human being, Dwight unflinchingly views his life as a "bruised, yet still decent enterprise." In a violent outburst provoked by his wife telling him she is leaving him for another man, Dwight accidentally hits his son, Sam, in the face, causing near-irreparable damage, emotionally and physically. He has worked his way back to being able to spend time with Sam on weekends, but ex-wife Ruth is always mistrustful.When they are late returning from the ball game and with Sam asleep in the front seat, Dwight drives too fast down the same Reservation Road shortcut and doesn't see Josh, lost in thought by the side of the road until it is too late. Dwight hesitates for a moment after hitting him and being fairly certain that he is dead, almost long enough for Ethan to get a glimpse of him before he speeds off.From that moment on, Ethan is a man understandably obsessed with finding his son's killer. "Without hope," says Ethan, "the need to punish is the one true religion. Blame must be fixed on some soul other than one's own."But in a Dostoyevskian turn, Dwight, who wants to be caught, becomes too seduced by his own self-loathing for the crime too turn himself in. He creates his own hell, which brings him closer and closer to the shattered Learner family.Schwartz revels in the moment -- Grace pulling herself from her self-absorbed grief to comfort Emma in Josh's room, Dwight observing Ethan reach for Grace and seeing her pull away, Ethan losing complete control in a police station -- and that, even more than the suspenseful plot, gives the book its resonance. He writes gracefully, and with economy, every page reminding us that life can take a startling turn at any moment and we can never predict its outcome or our reaction to it."Reservation Road" follows in the tradition of a few other standout books that have dealt with the loss of a child on the surviving (barely) family, like Judith Guest's "Ordinary People," Rosellen Brown's "Before and After" and Jacqueline Mitchard's extraordinary "The Deep End of the Ocean." Where this book breaks new ground is in taking us so deeply inside the characters that we see ourselves, not just empathize what we would do in the same situation. These are three characters in deep need of redemption, and this page-turning read delivers it, with a wallop.

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