Fear, lies, and violence beset an impoverished town.
The fictional northern California town of Carverville, “utterly comatose, on the point of death, a ghost town in the making,” is the setting for a convoluted mystery by fiction, travel, food, and arts writer Downie (A Taste of Paris: A History of the Parisian Love Affair with Food, 2017, etc.). The story centers on James Paul Adams, now in his 50s, who grew up in Carverville, an outsider by virtue of his educated, city-bred parents and his own intelligence and ambition. College, law school, and a career as a judge kept him away for 4 decades; but when the novel opens, James has returned, bearded and wild-haired, suffering and searching. He is a widower, grieving for his lost wife; he has escaped “certain people” pursuing him; and he is haunted by the memory of Maggie, the young woman he once loved. After traveling aimlessly in a rented RV, he finds himself at the Eden Seaside Resort & Cottages, run by the eccentric Beverley, a busybody who seems to know everyone and everything in town and who protects James from the suspicions of Carverville’s sinister policemen, who are eager to run strangers out of town. More than economically depressed, the town is a hotbed of corruption, racism, and xenophobia, lorded over by gun-toting bullies notable for “stupidity, ignorance, and dullness.” This is Trump’s America, Downie implies, rife with climate-change deniers and white supremacists. Deputized as immigration agents, the “citizen posse of good white boys” is led by a villain who has created “a reign of terror.” The plot thickens—becoming positively clotted—after James and Taz, a teenager who works for Beverley, find a cage, washed up on the shore, containing what appear to be human bones. As James plunges into investigating the bizarre discovery, he comes upon increasingly grisly evidence. Downie piles on “life-changing revelations” that, unfortunately, are obvious to the reader long before they are unveiled for James; and the extent of violence makes the novel blur into dystopian science fiction.
Too many secrets overwhelm the story.