Acclaimed storywriter Chaon (Among the Missing, 2001, etc.) affirms his matchless skill in crafting the small sketch, even as he struggles to conclude the weather-beaten plot of his first novel with large-scale grace.
The initial handful of chapters here, in fact, read like a fresh collection of stories, distinguished as usual by the shy, cutting honesty of Chaon’s prose. As these precisely dated chapters collect, the larger design of the whole emerges. Jonah and Troy share a mother. Troy was adopted out, while Jonah was raised by his mother and grandfather. Nearly all the characters here are adopted, in one way or another, some more than once. While his legal parents shred apart the last tendrils of their marriage, Troy is taken into a young family’s circle. Jonah lives with his mother, herself an orphan, her wifeless father, and a Doberman pinscher. Each incident is expertly delineated as the narrative gathers momentum: Troy’s early experiences with soft drugs and girls, Jonah’s mauling by his grandfather’s Doberman, and their mother’s yearlong stay at a home for unwed mothers. When Jonah sets out to find the brother he’s heard his mother mention, Chaon’s taut mastery slackens. Hiring on as a cook where his half-brother works, Jonah learns that Troy, recently arrested for marijuana possession, has lost custody of his son Loomis. The tightly wound Jonah improbably attempts to “rescue” the boy back into Troy’s custody, even as Troy continues to struggle with the new knowledge that he has a long-lost brother.
The symmetries and compensations here are a bit too tidy, and though his final vignette leaves the reader astonished once again, the larger satisfactions of mature plot-making remain elusive for this powerful, promising writer.