“Most people seemed to believe that they were experts of their own life story. They had a set of memories that they strung like beads, and this necklace told a sensible tale. But she suspected that most of these stories would fall apart under strict examination — that, in fact, we were only peeping through a keyhole of our lives, and the majority of the truth, the reality of what happened to us, was hidden. Memories were no more solid than dreams.”
Ill Will by Dan Chaon is a hard story to summarize, but let me try. The focal character is Dustin Tillman, who’s had a hard life. When he was thirteen, his parents and his aunt and uncle were massacred, and his adopted older brother Russell was indicted for the crimes, based largely on Dustin’s and his cousin Kate’s testimony. Which concerned Satanism (a big thing back in the ’80s, if you recall). Thirty years later, though, Russell is cleared by the Innocence Project and released. Dustin, now a seemingly successful psychologist, is also dealing with his wife’s terminal cancer and his estrangement from his teenage sons, and he’s forming an unhealthy relationship with a patient, Aqil. Aqil has uncovered what he thinks is a serial killer (or possibly a cult?) drowning college boys around the area, and he wants Dustin to help him investigate.
It becomes increasingly clear that neither we nor any of these characters have a coherent idea of the truth of any of these events, Dustin least of all. Our memories are untrustworthy, stories we tell ourselves to make sense out of our lives, or “truths” other people implant in our brains. As we go deeper down this rabbit hole, we realize that everything we think of as real is fundamentally untrustworthy. Like the characters, how can we even be sure if we are alive or dead?
This story is not for everyone. It is about the ambiguity of reality, so the reader has to be comfortable with an ambiguous story. Chaon lets the readers assemble their own truths out of the component parts he gives us, just as the characters do. I think this is the work of a master craftsman, a great funhouse of a book that I’m sure would reveal more of itself with multiple readings.
Former Indian Army Captain Ranjit Singh, after being court-martialed for a mission gone terribly wrong, is self-exiled to Massachusetts with his family. He is barely scraping by on Martha’s Vineyard, working as the winter caretaker for the rich summer residents of the island, when a chain of events gets his family picked up by Homeland Security and puts Ranjit on the run for his life. The Caretaker is a well-told conspiracy story with an intriguing hero and an interesting glimpse of Indian culture.
This week, I’m recommending a book I stayed up until the wee hours last night finishing: Descent by Tim Johnston. On a family vacation in Colorado, an eighteen-year-old girl goes for a run on a deserted mountain road, accompanied by her younger brother on a mountain bike, when the worst thing happens: the boy is left injured, and the girl has disappeared, plummeting her family into a nightmare. This book was so much more than the escapist thriller I was expecting. It never goes in the expected direction. Johnston’s writing style is spare but evocative, and he does a remarkable job of breathing life into the wild mountain setting and all the characters, large and small, allowing the reader to fully inhabit this book’s world. While the subject matter is undeniably rough, the story itself has a quality of myth, addressing themes of fate and chance and what it means to be a hero. This book enthralled me, and I’m sure it will stay with me for a long time.
This week I’m recommending The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi. It’s a thriller wrapped up in a dystopia, a realistic and frightening vision of the havoc climate change might wreak on the American Southwest.
In the near future, climate change has brought about drought and constant dust storms in the Southwest, resulting in the collapse of several cities, as well as the state of Texas, and violent clashes among the rest over access to water. Las Vegas is ruled by Catherine Case, head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, a ruthless and intriguing character who wasn’t in the book nearly enough. Angel Velasquez works for her as a “water knife,” cutting other’s water supplies so that Vegas can have its water. Case sends Angel to Phoenix, a city that is slowly dying, to investigate the murder of one of her undercover operatives. There Angel stumbles into a plot involving double crossers, ruthless California operatives, an idealistic reporter who wants to expose the conspiracy, and a Texas refugee in the wrong place at the wrong time. Everyone is after the same Maltese falcon . . . I mean, senior water rights, which is apparently the key to controlling the Colorado River.
This is a thriller wrapped in a dystopian setting. This near future Phoenix is choked with dust and awash in brutality. Prostitution, torture, gangs, crazy guys with packs of hyenas as pets–all here. California state operatives bomb dams. New Mexicans string up Texan refugees as a warning. This near future vision of the United States is completely unrecognizable and yet seems all too plausible.