An unfortunately sluggish first 50 pages give little hint of the riches of characterization, plot, and theme to be found in this superb second novel from the author of Play for a Kingdom (1997).
Once again, Dyja’s subject is the Civil War—this time as “lived” by re-enactors at Riga Village, a historic mountaintop settlement in northwestern Connecticut. The homage paid to the past there attracts the attention of Steven Armour, a former history major, and a minor executive who manages Web sites for the Dilly-Perkins food conglomerate, with a mixture of general competence and periodic bad judgment that also afflicts his experience of marriage and parenthood. Joining the re-enactors, Steven is assigned the character of John Trow, a nondescript soldier whose unheroic life nevertheless begins to exert a strong fascination, especially when accumulating evidence suggests a secret Trow had shared with Polly Kellogg, wife of Trow’s superior officer. Dyja pulls out one dazzling surprise after another, as Steven finds himself drawn to the married woman playing Mrs. Kellogg, endangering relationships with his impatient wife Patti and their two (brilliantly drawn) children, and alternately seduced and repelled by the possibly ghostly presence of Trow, “who” appears to be saying to Steven, “I am the person you want to be.” This is a terrific subject, seldom if ever previously treated in fiction. Dyja makes the presence of the past all the more potent by juxtaposing against it the commercial world clamoring for Steven’s attention (most memorably in such absurdities as Dilly-Perkins’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float, embodying “a magical trip through the world of dumplings and pasta”). And it climaxes stunningly, at the Riga Villagers’ reenactment of the catastrophic battle of Cold Harbor, with Steven fully possessed of the truth about John Trow, and prepared to discover whether he will or will not “become” him.
Every bit as entertaining and gripping as it is ingenious.