A writer scours the past and his own false starts in an ultimately futile quest to explain the 1961 assassination of a charismatic North Dakota legislator.
In his latest return to the Northern plains, Watson (Orchard, 2003, etc.) flouts the taboo against writer protagonists, no doubt in the interests of structure. Musing over a compendium of his earlier attempts to explicate the central drama of his life, the nameless writer-narrator recalls a January Wednesday in Bismarck, 1961, when he walked home from high school with his best friend, Gene Stoddard. At Gene’s house, Gene’s father Ray has, uncharacteristically, returned early from his job as a state employee at the nearby North Dakota capitol building. The narrator later learns that Ray shot, point-blank at the capitol, his own boyhood friend Monty Burnham, a state senator with Washington ambitions, then hurried home to hang himself in the family garage, leaving behind a confession to the crime but no inkling as to motive. Approaching the incident from the points of view of both pivotal and peripheral players, the narrator dispenses creative writing tips and quotes stories he’s published in obscure literary journals. Several speculative vendetta scenarios emerge. Monty and Alma, Ray’s beautiful wife, were high-school sweethearts, and rekindled an affair after her marriage, possibly during World War II, possibly during a high-school reunion, casting doubt on the paternity of the Stoddards’ daughter. Monty bamboozled Ray’s dying father into selling a beloved lake cabin, depriving Ray of his inheritance. Monty embroiled Ray, who works in purchasing, in a kickback scheme involving the state auto fleet, a scandal on the brink of exposure. Although everyone else, including his parents, has put the trauma to rest, the narrator has not. His obsession is complicated by his estrangement from Gene, and his (lifelong) infatuation with Gene’s girlfriend, Marie.
The soft-focus ending is only a momentary respite from the novel’s preoccupation—the persistent, agonizing allure of the unknowable.