Adam Mansbach 2008

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The Night Country
by Stewart O’Nan

FSG / 229 pages

The scariest thing about The Night Country, Stewart O’Nan’s ghost story, is that the event around which it spins has become so familiar: a fatal high school car crash. It is not the haunting that is haunting here, but the vividly detailed portraits of the victims left behind, the vignettes of a small town savaged by tragedy.

The story opens on Halloween morning, exactly one year after a car carrying five teenagers from the New England suburb of Avon veers off a country road and smashes into a tree. Toe, Danielle, and Marco die, Kyle sustains brain damage which leaves him with a five-year-old’s mental capacity, and Tim is fine – except that he’s lost his girlfriend and his entire community in the space of five seconds.

Also damaged in the accident is Brooks, the police officer from whom the car was running when it crashed. Obsessed with his own culpability in the accident (frequently referenced, but revealed only at the book’s end), he has spent the last year shadowing Tim and Kyle. His marriage and career have disintegrated, and to top it off, gentrification is forcing him to abdicate the only town he’s ever known.

It is Brooks who gradually intuits the plan that comprises The Night Country’s present action. For months, Tim has been planning to correct fate’s oversight and kill himself and his damaged friend Kyle in an identical crash – same time, same tree, same cop in pursuit.

But there are other forces in play. The ghosts of the dead teenagers watch the lives of their friends and families in knowing, impotent vigil, free-floating but summoned by the thoughts of their loved ones. Suburban high school life was boring, but suburban high school afterlife really bites. Marco narrates on behalf of the three, as they flit amomng Tim, Brooks, Kyle and Kyle’s mother, watching and bickering and occasionally intervening in the small ways of which they are capable - spooking animals, causing momentary chills by floating through someone.
Marco, as narrator, is a cipher. He refuses to reveal anything about his own grieving family, although we do get some information on the lives of his fellow ghosts. There are frequent parenthetical ghost-insights, in which Marco waxes wistful on life and death or quotes his cohorts, but for the most part the narration takes up position inside the minds of the living characters.

Most gripping is Kyle’s mother, shattered but soldiering on in her new role as caretaker of the permanent five-year-old who used to be her obnoxious, pot-dealing son. She can no longer socialize; she is now that poor woman, and her husband’s stoic attitude and daily escape to the office are not making things any easier. The best thing about the ghost-narrator is the sense of voyeurism he imparts; the reader is constantly aware of nosing unwelcome into private moments. We watch Kyle’s mom – as Marco calls her throughout –- as she micro-manages Kyle’s life, sending him off to school and to his job at the Stop’N’Shop, where Tim looks after him. We watch her make a wreath for the shrine at the tree, plan an evening out with her husband so she doesn’t have to be home on the anniversary of the accident.

It is through her that O’Nan wrests the most complex emotional response from the reader. Kyle, in his oblivion, is hard to sympathize with, Brooks borders on ruined-cop cliché and Tim is sometimes flat, his mourning weakly dramatized by a dog-eared stack of photos. With these characters, our lack of knowledge about who they were before the accident limits our ability to care about them; the five teenagers are little more that The Kids Who Crashed – two towns over, it often feels like. But Kyle’s mom has been created by the tragedy in a way the others have not. We feel a genuine moment of happiness on her behalf when she is able to have a nice time at the restaurant, cut with a melancholic awareness of the hell to which she will soon return. In her, O’Neal gives us a grieving friend, someone we’d like to help but know we can’t. The spot-on tone of her inner monologue, the degree of tortured self-reckoning O’Neal imparts her, and the consistency with which we see her alone are all reminiscent of the wonderfully vivid women in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours.

The Night Country is a character piece swaddled in plot; the story’s arc is too simple and inevitable to be affecting, the build-up to Tim’s midnight drive is plodding, and the revelation of Brooks’ true involvement is too small a payoff to be handled with such labored mystery. The ghosts themselves are badly underdeveloped as both characters and presences – as are the rules of ghost Dom. Another problem is a hackneyed prologue – “come with us, out into the night. Come now, America the lovesick, America the timid, the blessed, the educated… Come, all you dreamers, all you monsters, all you zombies. What are you doing anyway, paying the bills, washing the dishes, waiting for the doorbell? (p.3)” – which, thankfully, has little to do with the book in either tone or content.

But when O’Neal delves deeply enough into his characters, these shortcomings fade, and we are gifted with a treasure trove of small, moving moments, turns of phrase, and insights: Tim’s decision not to have a drink of orange juice because finding his cup in the sink would be too painful for his parents tomorrow, when he’s gone; the way he pulls the covers over his head and “makes a cave of breath” (50); the way Kyle’s father’s complaint about traffic is described as a “warning shot to signal his mood, proof it has nothing to do with her” (142). In such delicate, wise instants, The Night Country finds its light.

Adam Mansbach’s second novel, Angry Black White Boy, will be published by Crown in January 2005.


Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing