Bollen sets his contemporary, urban tale in Orient, Long Island, where successful city artists are buying up expensive real estate and encroaching on the territory of the “year-rounders” who have built a life for themselves in this isolated, exclusive enclave. A different type of thinking is about to change the lifestyle of Orient resident, architect and amateur landscape painter Paul Benchley. After the death of his mother and his brother, Patrick, Paul can no longer afford to run the family hotel that until now has kept him
(barely) afloat. Without the further upheaval of having to sell his home, Paul invites nineteen-year-old Mills Chevern to live with him so that Mills can help him clean and help maintain a house literally overflowing with years of family junk.
Enter Mills into Paul’s carefully calibrated domestic life. But Mills, a druggie and a drifter, is an outsider, “a grime-streaked, grubby teenager.” Mills’s fascination with Paul (and with the people of Orient) is immediate; he admits that he is not of the class with which Paul would normally come into contact if his financial circumstances weren't so tenuous. As friendship gently binds Mills and Paul together, a raft of secrets is revealed and what appears on the surface to be a developing relationship morphs into a misunderstanding accelerated by Paul’s neighbors Pam and Bryan Muldoon. Anxious Pam is wary of Paul’s new boarder, this unknown intruder who crashes her fundraising picnic.
Pam interrogates Bryan, who tells his wife that he’s just “some kind of foster kid in New York who’s having a hard time.” Pam, however, is convinced that Paul’s new friend is a convenient smokescreen hiding a man she only assumed she knew. Amidst murmured questions about Paul’s sexuality (and now
this wayward teenager in the mix), Pam is ever more convinced about the influence Mills might have on her precious sons, Tommy and Theo. While Paul and the other artists of his ilk represent what Orient feels are avant garde ideals, it is Paul’s lodger who quickly becomes an object of obsessive interest. Pam blames the artists for the recent wave of New Yorkers buying up the local property to turn into weekend retreats. She’s been pressuring Bryan, a key member of Orient’s local historical association, to do something about it.
The community, swirling around like glamorous spokes to form a hub of gossip, speak plainly of Paul’s bereavement and also of Mills, his teenage showpiece. Mills forms a connection with Tommy and with Beth Shepherd, an eager artist and a patient listener. Seeing in Mills a kindred spirit of sorts, she invites Mills into her home and into the tenuous domestic existence she shares with Gavril, her vain, crazy Romanian husband, who is obsessed with his asphalt art installations to the detriment of everything and everyone else. At first unwilling to share confidences with her new friend, Beth hides the secret of pregnancy from both her husband and her mother.
Up to this point, Bollen’s story is about character and setting as the author sprinkles his narrative with a world of flashy and self-conscious artists who seem temperamental at worst and talented at best. Cryptic and dramatic, events move hurriedly after Mills and Beth meet. The authorities soon descend on Orient, the inhabitants all too willing to cast aspersions when questioned over the death of Jeff Trader, the town’s popular handyman. Jeff, a well-known drunk, died on the same day “the creature” was discovered--a “mutant animal” that has washed up from the federally controlled site of Plum Island. As the vision of Jeff’s body “bobs like a cork” off Gardiners Bay, merging in the local imagination, local DI Mike Gilborn has questions of his own for Mills. Led by Pam Muldoon’s suspicions, the community is convinced that Mills, this shady outsider, is the only person responsible for perpetrating such savage acts of violence.
Despite Mills and Beth’s sometimes futile attempts to find Jeff’s killer, the aftermath of a tragic house fire reinforces the killer’s uncontrolled agenda. Beth tells Mike that stately octogenarian Magdalena Kiefer invited her to her house just a few days before for the sole purpose of telling her that she suspected someone had killed Jeff Trader. Beth’s visit to Magdalena is a pivotal moment in the investigation. Jeff had keys to every home in Orient; he knew things: “the secrets that people leave out in their tables.” Jeff also was keeping records and he had a book, a brown leather journal. Mills and Beth are convinced clues to Jeff’s killer are held within its pages.
Bollen’s novel is stunning, his elegant, sophisticated prose perpetuating a sense of distortion, of objects and people being turned into things; there’s a persistent sense of fragmentation. His characters are as emotionally colorful as they are distractingly real: Holly Drake with her “self-righteous Obama stickers” and gaudy Middle Eastern fabrics; ancient Magdalena with her aluminum walking canes and Hispanic nurse; Lux and Nathan, Beth’s fellow artists, somehow connected to Gavril and part of a group of Orient artists who once fought hard to leave but are desperately returning to the suburbs, prepared to pay obscene amounts for the kinds of houses and neighborhoods that
trapped them in their youths; Adam Pruitt, who runs a security company in
competition with Bryan Muldoon; and Tommy Muldoon, who unwittingly becomes Mills’s handsome lothario, allowing him to be seduced by his “dank and unbathed boyhood.” All become suspects as they tumble deep into Bollen’s sensational heart of darkness, a troubled mix of seasoned opportunistic artists and moneyed real estate developers.
Bollen mixes his troubled protagonists with a poetic voice to emphasize his major themes: personal collateral damage and a moral condemnation that is accelerated by Orient’s “eclectic fan of gossip.” “What seems lost in the growing storm of blame is how I got there in the first place.” A prophetic statement from poor, beleaguered Mills who looks at himself through Pam’s eyes and sees “a juvenile delinquent with an appetite for trouble,” an outsider with a penchant for criminality who steals impressionable teenagers away from their families. There’s also deeply pensive and hyper-sensitive Beth, whose marriage to Gavril has gone so wrong. More than any other character, Beth understands the likelihood of failure and of having "naive expectations." Damaged by the bitterness of her marriage and by her failure as an artist, Beth is unequivocally drawn to equally damaged Mills, her unapologetic friendship with the boy triggering a waterfall of emotion as her memories blur between the past and the present.
It’s just so easy for Orient’s inhabitants to make the connection between a
monster’s decaying shape and the real estate markets in close proximity. Linking
his characters together by cause, effect, and murder, Bollen shows us how these people are searching for connection in the minefield of emotional distress. Characters once imbued with the delicate possibility of happiness
are in reality tinted with hints of loss and despair and heartbreak.