A man who uncovers the causes of car accidents is forced to reckon with the one that transformed his childhood.
Ellis, the hero of the second novel by Arvin (Articles of War, 2005, etc.), has the grim job of investigating car-crash sites on the behalf of lawyers. The gig involves a high degree of precision, which Arvin explains in winning detail: What does a pattern of scratches and dents say about how many times a car flipped over? How far would a passenger be ejected from the windshield of a car that hits another at a particular speed? Ellis and his boss, Boggs, criss-cross the country to study cases, performing their grisly work with the kind of gallows humor common to homicide cops. But Arvin explores what happens when grief can’t be patched over with jokes or cold logic. At the center of Ellis’ transformation is Heather, who plays a host of roles in the story: She’s Boggs’ wife, Ellis’ mistress and was on the scene when Ellis’ half brother was killed in an accident when they were teens. Boggs goes off the rails when he discovers the affair, threatening suicide and sending Ellis on an extended road trip that involves visits to past accident sites. Arvin renders these old accidents in such vivid detail that you can almost, but not quite, ignore the contrivance of the setup. As Ellis struggles to chase down Boggs, he’s also piecing together details of his half brother’s death—which, by the time the truth becomes clear, feels swallowed by the plot. And a subplot involving Ellis’ accidental maiming of a jaywalker feels oddly tacked-on, given the seriousness of its aftermath.
Accidents are everywhere and unavoidable, Arvin means to say, but ironically his characters feel overly controlled.