The principal characters in Chaon’s mysterious new novel of mistaken identity are Lucy Lattimore and her enigmatic high school teacher George Orson. Lucy and George have met by accident and are drawn to each other, their shy, secretive courtship providing an intricate framework for much of what happens in this complicated, multi-faceted story.
Escaping from her home
in Pompey, Ohio, Lucy travels with George to The Lighthouse Hotel in Nebraska. Amid the dry wind, hard weather and dust, George tells Lucy that they will stay
here for just a short time until they’ve figured things out: “just until the heat was off a bit.”
Both characters are cautious yet daring. Lucy goes along with George mainly because she has to admit things could be worse: she could still be living in Pompey. Yet she neither understands the stakes of the game she’s about to play, nor does she entirely grasp George’s ultimate agenda. She’s simply buoyed by the fact that George has led her to believe they are going to make a clean break, have a new life, and become incredibly rich.
Meanwhile, another character has entered the story in an entirely different location. Miles Cheshire heads towards the isolated town of Inuvik and the wide delta that leads to the Arctic Ocean,
hoping to find his twin brother, Hayden, who has been missing for more than a
decade. A troubled and isolated loner, a schizophrenic, and a genius with delusions of grandeur, Hayden has spent much of his early life paranoid and convinced that people are out to get him.
As Hayden wonders the country, adopting various assumed identities and sending emails back to Miles full of fantastical descriptions of invented landscapes, angry rants about human overpopulation, and late-night suicidal regrets, Miles has been a willing participant in his twin brother’s fantasies. Somehow his past is tied to Hayden’s mercurial present.
Chaon walks the reader through a veritable dreamscape; Miles and Hayden, Lucy and George are all placed on a ragged trajectory towards each other. From the American Midwest to the farthest reaches of Canada and then onto Africa, the author frames his story around a terrible torture scene as yet another character, a young man by the name of Ryan, becomes a petty con man, a professional liar and thief when he falls into a shady business venture with his father, Uncle Jay, “the jailbird the hobo who never owned anything he couldn’t carry.”
Like a delicate piece of string, Chaon winds his protagonists purposefully toward a final showdown as devastating as the opening chapter of the novel. The themes are abandonment and loneliness, his isolated characters all dealing with it in various ways.
Behind it all lies Hayden - his breakdowns, his past lives and spirit cities, the various identities he inhabits, and other fractured emails and letters he sends to Miles.
In a story of fragile relationships, broken lives and foolish deceptions, Hayden is the driving force, a shady and illusory figure who slips into each new identity as smooth as a feather,
seeming content to leave emotional and spiritual wreckage behind him.