Although Chaon’s latest novel only hints at the brutality of serial killer, the author goes where few crime writers dare, strafing his dark tale with the themes of family dysfunction and drug abuse. While many readers will be disturbed by the novel’s subject matter, Chaon’s fans will admire him for having the guts to explore such intense and taboo issues. The crux of the novel is the subtle shift in the world of Dustin Tillman, who gets phone call from his cousin Kate telling him that his adopted older brother, Rusty--sentenced over 30 years ago for murdering their family--has been released from prison on new DNA evidence.
The news is disconcerting. Dustin
has been drifting along on his own trajectory. Forty-one, married to Jill, and with two teenage sons, Aaron and Dennis, life has been pretty good for this psychologist who runs a small and successful practice in Cleveland. Kate’s phone call jumpstarts Dustin’s recollections June 1983, when he, Kate, and his other cousin, Wave, lived in the camper of the driveway of Dustin’s family house in
western Nebraska. Dustin can’t remember much about that particular morning, other than “the vivid sense of massacre” when he discovered his father, Dave, with a gunshot wound to his chest,
his mother, Vicki, and Auntie Colleen “with the stain of blood beneath her.”
A serial killer is on the loose, abducting and murdering teenage college
boys. On a mission to solve the crimes is enigmatic, shaggy-haired ex-cop Aqil Ozorowski,
ostensibly seeing Dustin for smoking cessation hypnotherapy. Aqil has theory about the latest dead kid, Peter Allingham,
whose body was recently recovered from the pond near his campus. The cops view his death (and all the other deaths) as accidental drowning. The boys were binge-drinking, most likely at a college party or a bar, and probably negotiated their way to a riverbank where they drowned. According to the police, there were no signs of foul play nor any signs of an accident.
Thanks to Chaon’s exquisite descent into Dustin’s past, we learn of Rusty’s teenage drug abuse in the
summer of 1978 and the depth of Rusty’s experience and depravity. At first there’s something wondrous in Rusty’s whispered words, in the urgent pressing of his body against Dustin in “which a secret is almost glimpsed.” It comes as no surprise that Rusty takes the rap for the Tillman murders; he would boast to impressionable
young Dustin about killing and loving death-metal music. At Rusty’s trial, the jury even brought the fact that Rusty did drugs, that he once pressured Dustin into doing LSD.
“We are always telling a story to ourselves, about ourselves.” That quote signifies the psychological consequences of Chaon’s novel as the friendship between Aqil and Dustin grows and Aqil gradually convinces the psychologist to help him research the boys’ deaths. At first, Dustin doesn’t see a connection, but soon the case is running deep. The therapist is gradually seduced by his troubled patient, this obsessive post-traumatic and possibly delusional former cop.
A part of Dustin is grateful to Aqil for bringing him this mystery. The deaths have become almost urban legend, and Aqil is not alone in imagining that there is some kind of pattern in those “apparent accidents.”
Hurtling through a landscape of black asphalt, snow-covered fences, and bare trees in the middle of lonely fields, moments you think of as important suddenly shift and distort; whatever you think you remember is suddenly gone.
There are some genuinely troubling aspects to these drowning deaths, and Dustin
is determined to approach them with a clearer eye and greater self-knowledge. This obsession, however, comes at a price. He neglects to see the steady disintegration of his family, and he fails to notice Aaron’s slow descent into drug addiction. Aaron turns to Rusty;
with his mother dead and his brother, Dennis, now a sophomore at Cornell and out of the picture, all Aaron has is Rusty’s phone calls and a “crazy dad” who constantly goes on about some person “murdering college boys, and supposedly drowning them.”
In a fundamental battle of wills between Dustin and Aqil, Aaron and Rusty, each harbors
a different agenda over his recollections of the past. While Aqil serves as Dustin’s trusted confidant, Aaron seeks an illicit thrill in talking to Rusty--the fact that Dustin doesn’t know makes Aaron’s heart feel strangely open. Sinister and chilling, recalls Silence of the Lambs, although not as overtly violent. What makes the torment worth enduring
are the ferocious undercurrent of suburban evil and Chaon’s portrayal of Dustin’s instability and trauma, warped by the years of manipulation and his own sense of loss.