Family dynamics exert a powerful pull underneath the surface of this debut novel about a game of paintball gone tragically awry.
Robinson (Officer Friendly and Other Stories, 2003) stretches himself with a full-length narrative that initially doesn’t seem to have much more plot than a short story. On Meadow Island, Maine, an isolated community in which everybody has known everybody forever, men who haven’t quite left boyhood behind don’t have much to do but work, drink and play paintball. The war game is an adrenaline rush for Bennie Littlefield and his older brother William, known to all simply as “Littlefield.” As much as Bennie enjoys the weekly competition, he doesn’t take paintball nearly as seriously as Littlefield does. After one of the daylong games ends in a disappointing tie, the teams regroup that evening amid a fierce blizzard to play to win. Bennie falls into a quarry, suffering a broken leg and a head injury, while a mysterious member of the opposition disappears. Did he die? Was he murdered? As circumstantial evidence implicates Littlefield, Bennie reflects on the family history that has brought them to this point. The brothers had an intensely competitive rivalry until the death of their father, a man of military bearing whom even his family called “Coach.” Bennie exhibited promise that seems to have dissipated since he returned home after dropping out of college. Both Littlefield brothers have somehow become townies (the “water dogs” of the title), though their father’s ambition and their mother’s fortune had initially suggested a better future for them. Their mother and Bennie’s twin sister have left the island, and relationships among the four are complex. (“Don’t be intentionally clueless,” his sister warns Bennie at one point.)
A richly detailed yet elliptical work by an author who trusts readers to fill in the blanks.