Choi (The Foreign Student, 1998, etc.) draws on the Unabomber case for her awkward third novel, about a campus bombing and a beleaguered Asian-American professor.
Lee is an aging tenured math professor at an undistinguished state university in the Midwest. The adjoining office belongs to Rick Hendley, a much younger man with a much bigger reputation, a hotshot computer scientist loved by his students and envied by the unloved Lee. When a mail bomb explodes in Hendley’s face, Lee feels a “terrible gladness.” He does not visit Hendley in the hospital; when the man dies, he does not attend the campus memorial service. Petty and self-absorbed, Lee is no nicer now than he was all those years ago in grad school, when he was befriended by an evangelizing Christian, Lewis Gaither, and promptly stole his wife Aileen. Out of the blue, a letter arrives from Gaither, suggesting they resume their friendship. Could there be a connection between this letter and the bombing? An FBI agent seems to think so, and his suspicions are intensified when Lee lies to him about his relationship with Gaither. Choi alternates between the investigation and Lee’s marriage to Aileen, doomed once Lee refused to show any interest in her baby John, fathered by Gaither, who later absconded with him. This can of worms acts as a severe distraction from Lee’s current troubles, which multiply once the FBI declares him a person of interest (though not a suspect) and the media and neighbors harass him. (Echoes here of the Richard Jewell/1996 Atlanta Olympics story.) The abrupt introduction of the now adult John is a further distraction. The story does gain some momentum with Lee’s cross-country dash to rendezvous with Gaither, who has now issued a Manifesto, like the Unabomber. But the climax, in the snowy Idaho woods, defies belief on several counts, among them Lee’s last-minute makeover as a potential martyr.
Lee’s soul is too small to carry the novel, despite the author’s astute observations.