Imagination and literal truth collide intriguingly in this Chinese-box puzzle about a man obsessed with a car crash…or is he?
First-time novelist Ferry gives his own versatile professional life, as well as his name, to his protagonist: a high-school teacher in the upscale Chicago suburb of Lake Forest who moonlights as a writer of travel essays. Narrator Pete Ferry’s carefully orchestrated life becomes surreal after he witnesses a traffic accident in which a young woman named Lisa Kim is killed. Or so Pete tells his writing students—a roomful of quick-witted teenagers, each sharply individualized—adding the playful codicil that the incident may not have actually occurred, may instead be an idea intended to challenge their creative powers. What Pete believes gradually emerges from a constantly shifting narrative in which he journeys to various places (Mexico, Thailand, Ontario) for writing assignments, shares his speculations and suspicions with friends and nearly runs aground irreparably with Lydia, who either is or isn’t the woman he loves. Obsessed with the mysterious Lisa Kim, a gifted actress and perhaps also a promiscuous drug addict, Pete attends her funeral, is mistaken for someone close to her and slowly closes in on crucial details about her death. He’d briefly glimpsed another car at the scene of the accident, and he eventually encounters its occupant in a tense denouement that confirms his hunches. Unless, as he reports back to his students, he’s made the whole thing up. This is a witty novel about its own provenance, an exploration of the ambiguous ways in which the writer’s imagination works. Its sly circumlocutions recall Frederick Exley’s classic 1968 anti-novel A Fan’s Notes, and the motions of its perfectly engineered plot raise memories of Humbert Humbert stalking archvillain Clare Quilty in Nabokov’s Lolita.
Novel or not-novel, it’s one hell of a fictional debut.