By Dan Chaon
And there you have it, all expressed in three words in the headline, the entire meaning and journey in Dan Chaon’s trip from one part of a man’s personal hell to the other inevitable part. It’s not that this is a bad novel; it’s that it is a novel that promises a bit too much and delivers more than a bit too little. You have the mass murder from long ago. You have the search for a modern day serial killer. You have psychological turmoil over the family murder of years ago. And you have a resolution that many will find less than satisfying.
Dustin Tillman is a middle-aged psychologist practicing in the Cleveland, Ohio, area. He has to contend with sons, high school and college, who tune him out. He has to adjust to the loss of his wife, who it seems kept everything inside and outside the household together, to early death from cancer. He has to relive and puzzle over the murder of his mother and father and aunt and uncle in a brutal mass killing when he was a boy, when he testified against his adopted brother, Rusty, labeling him and the crime a, perhaps, result of satanic ritual. He has to now fear Rusty who has finally been released from prison and, worse of all, found not to have committed the murders based on DNA evidence. And he has to satisfy himself with a less than stellar practice and ranking in the community of psychologists, after such a promising start to his career, because of an ill-advised excursion into the periphery of acceptable treatment therapies. He’s a man in turmoil (who wouldn’t be?), which Chaon gives you a sense of with dialogue that trails into the vapors and wide gaps just like the one before this thought.
Then, into his office walks a dame … no wait, an ex cop who committed an offense and has to visit a prescribed shrink in order to get back on the force. Dustin’s a second psychologist he sees for his own well being and because, clarion call here, he feels Dustin gets him. Gets him so much, Aqil, the ex detective, introduces Dustin to and slowly inveigles him to participate in the cracking of a perplexing case of serial murders of college boys who wander off from bars, disappear for days, and turn up in rivers and streams on dates that appear to hold significance for his killers, murders the various disparate police departments write off to excessive drinking, and which earn the deaths the meme Jack Daniels killer. Dustin tumbles deep, deep into the rabbit hole of delusion, of self-doubt regarding not just the parental murders but also whether his wife really loved, and the fog conjured up by a real murder.
This novel is less for crime fans, especially those enamored of the serial killer subgenre. It’s more for those interested in a character study, one examining two troubled minds, one wounded and the other manipulative. But be forewarned, it can become ponderous after a while. w/c