The “lives” lived by a novelist’s creations intersect and conflict in this tricky sequel to last year’s lost boy lost girl.
Successful writer and troubled Vietnam vet Tim Underhill (who’s been popping up in Straub’s fiction ever since 1988’s Koko) is troubled by cryptic e-mail messages from unidentified domains that, he slowly realizes, seem to have been sent by former acquaintances who’ve recently died. In a parallel plot, widowed Willy Patrick, Newberry Award–winning author of the YA fantasy novel In the Night Room, undergoes a series of traumatic misadventures that, taken together, suggest very sinister things about Mitchell Faber, the suave globetrotting executive she plans to marry. Early clues point to further links between Tim and Willy, and when they “meet” at a bookstore where he’s giving a reading, this rather preposterously convoluted tale’s metafictional intentions are made clear. It all has to do with a “mistake” made by Tim in an earlier novel (involving a soulless serial killer)—as Tim is made to understand, by such bizarre figures as a “pissed-off angel” of more than angelic strength and beauty, a most curiously named book collector who becomes his stalker, and a “Familiar Spirit” who establishes contact with Tim via—what else?: e-mail. Willy Patrick’s precise connection to the “flight-from-Bluebeard narrative” that is Tim’s current work-in-progress is more than a bit overelaborated, as the two novelists travel to Tim’s hometown for his brother’s wedding, a visit to a sinister abandoned house where horrendous crimes were committed, and the resolution of Willy’s understandably imperfect grasp of her own reality. Readers of Straub’s previous fiction will eventually tumble to what’s going on—but may well wonder whether the muted payoff was worth so much mazelike artifice.
Straub can still tease the imagination and chill the blood with the best of them. But it’s probably time to bury Tim Underhill, and move on.