Keating’s second novel is a study of small-town misery and depravity, with Gothic trimmings.
Normandy Falls is a Rust Belt town bordering the Great Lakes. It has dying industries and a college whose founder, Nathaniel Wakefield, abandoned scholarship for satanic practices and sired 12 “children of sin” whose descendants infect the town. One of the students, who narrates occasionally in the first person before yielding to others' viewpoints, is Edmund Campion, named, puzzlingly, after the English martyr. His faculty adviser, Martin Kingsley, is married but conducting an affair with a townie, Emily Ryan. Emily’s husband, Charlie, is a frequently absent merchant mariner, so Emily must raise their malicious 8-year-old twin daughters alone. The strain has driven her to drink, and early on she’s found floating in her pool, an apparent suicide. Keating’s novel has many similarities to his debut, The Natural Order of Things (2014): the post-industrial town, the lack of a protagonist, the humiliations heaped on his unpleasant characters (even Kingsley’s young son is a “horror-movie toddler”), and the use of hyperbole; over-the-top is Keating’s favorite place. Much of the novel belongs to three dissolute middle-aged men: Charlie Ryan, back for his wife’s funeral; Xavier, chef/owner of the downtown bistro; and the Gonk, the college’s director of maintenance and (shivers) a Wakefield descendant. The Gonk owns an antiquated still, and his moonshine is the main ingredient of a popular drink, The Red Death. (Emily had the recipe.) Its only rival is Xavier’s concoction, a psychedelic juice using the jazar carrot. Keating may not like his characters, but he lingers lovingly on these drinks. He steers the novel erratically toward two murders, a mass drowning, and a “fantastical hellscape” waiting for faculty guests at a New Year’s Eve ceremony.
There’s a substantial gap between the author’s dark vision and the characters who must enact it.