This disappointing follow-up to Pulitzer finalist The Bright Forever (2005) centers on the apparent 1955 suicide of Dewey Finn, a gay teen who lay down on railroad tracks in his Illinois town.
Our protagonist is Sam, Dewey’s first love from years ago. The closeted, elderly Sam, still in his hometown, has opted for solitude, with only a basset hound for company. He has long been estranged, for mysterious reasons related to Dewey, from his older brother Cal. Sam’s neighbor is a boyhood acquaintance, Arthur, a lonely widower and ex-Navy man who speaks in seagoing clichés. Arthur helps Sam build an elaborate sailing-vessel doghouse, a curiosity that attracts a cub reporter, Dewey’s grandnephew, who’s begun looking into the circumstances of his relative’s death. After the doghouse story appears, Cal—now surfaced, on CNN, as hero of a hostage crisis at an Ohio grain elevator—arrives on Sam’s doorstep, on the run; he’s caught up somehow in a McVeigh-like bombing scheme. Alas, this terror plot is a red herring that grows up to be a great red whale. Herbert Zwilling, less a character than a barely embodied symbol of menace, shows up in chase of Cal, and mayhem ensues. Counterpointing the violence is a good bit of small-town hokum (household hints, cooking tips and much earnest dialogue about love). But the real disappointment comes with the conclusion to the Dewey mystery. Sam, it turns out, is a far more morally ambiguous figure than we knew, and the book’s overshadowed initial mystery turns out to be the interesting one.
A lackluster book from a writer who’s done much better.