A man returns to his hometown to dismantle a barn, a symbol for his confrontation with the broken home he was raised in.
Cole, the hero of Scribner’s fourth novel (The Oregon Experiment, 2011, etc.), fled as far from his upbringing as possible, leaving his native Connecticut for Portland, Oregon. But he’s back in East Granby because his high-end construction business demands quality chestnut wood like the kind used to build a tobacco drying shed back in his hometown. He’s sidestepping family problems in Oregon: an estranged wife, Nikki, and a teenage son, Daniel, who’s courting school expulsion for his defiant freegan attitude. But he’s got family problems back east, too, where his father, Phil, has returned home after a prison stint for murdering Cole’s mother. Ignoring dad is tempting but difficult since he’s displaying symptoms of Alzheimer’s. That’s a lot of domestic drama to carry (not to mention Cole’s run-ins with a former bully), but Scribner mostly handles it with grace and a fine eye for detail around his Connecticut setting; he writes beautifully about the hills and tobacco fields that define the area. The novel's real turf, though, is the bleak emotional territory of abuse, and Scribner writes with brutal intensity about the violence Cole’s father rained down on his family and how that anger has been passed down through Cole and Daniel. Scribner’s prose can be overgrown, and some plotlines feel untenable; the righteously political Daniel registers only a mild protest at working in the tobacco industry when he comes for a change of scenery. But Scribner wisely avoids clichéd father-son teaching moments, instead drilling deeper into ever darker material, arguing that the stories abused children tell themselves about violence are often cover for even worse degradations. The novel ends on a redemptive note, but not before running its leads through an emotional gauntlet.
A bracing, knotty exploration of abuse and its impact across decades.