How do you follow up a book that spends 156 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, is translated into dozens of languages, and spawns a global legion of fans? It’s a question Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain, the sensational novel narrated by a race car driver’s philosophical pooch, knew he’d have to answer.
“I can go zen on it and say, ‘Well, it’s just me, I’m still the same,’ but I think people’s expectations change at a certain point,” says Stein, whose latest is A Sudden Light. “I have to trust that the reader trusts me. I have to do what I do, and hopefully people are going to come with me on the next ride, even though it may not have a dog or a race car.”
The next stop on Stein’s literary itinerary is the formerly grand Pacific Northwest estate of Elijah Riddell, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century timber baron. By 1990, the North Estate’s palatial lodge is in disrepair and the family is foundering. Across the country in Connecticut, the marriage of prodigal great-grandson Jones Riddell is crumbling. In an attempt to gain perspective—and a windfall from selling the precious property—Jones returns to Riddell House with his 14-year-old son, Trevor, in tow. With the help of his sister, Serena, Jones must persuade their addled father, Samuel, to sell the manse and move to a nursing home.
The summer that ensues is unusual on many levels. Trevor narrates the tale from adulthood, looking back—a perspective Stein borrowed from John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. “That lens is something that really helped me quite a bit in dealing with the largeness of the narrative scope, because I began with five generations of this family from 14-year-old Trevor’s point of view, and everything had to be done in discovery, everything he had to learn, he had to stumble upon. But 48-year-old Tr evor telling about his youth means that everybody’s being filtered through his eyes,” he says.
In Trevor’s eyes, Grandpa Samuel seems to have stirring moments of lucidity for a man who’s presumed to be suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s. Aunt Serena seems sexy, at first, but soon proves to be haunted and manipulative. Her repeated references to a terrible secret torture Jones, who withdraws and randomly disappears.
And there’s one more notable relative residing at Riddell House:
As I curled around the stairs to the landing, I stopped short, frozen, because in the dim flicker I saw a man looking at me. And, in that moment, the flame burned to my fingers and I dropped the match. I licked my burnt fingertips, quickly grabbed a new match, and lit it.
The man was gone.
For a flash. For a moment. I had seen someone I recognized from the painting in the parlor: I had seen Ben.
Benjamin Riddell, whose journals Trevor has lately discovered, may hold the key to many of the family mysteries. But he’s Trevor’s great-granduncle—and he’s a ghost.
“Trevor’s open to seeing what is unseen and, therefore, that’s why he’s not afraid—though he’s initially a little creeped out—but he doesn't run from ghosts or spirits,” Stein says. “I believe in being open to see other ways of life, other ways of being.
“I want to take you on a ride that has you laughing at some point, shedding a couple of tears—that when you finish it, you say, ‘I’m looking around, seeing things a little bit differently.’ That’s my goal, and I will consistently strive for it,” he says.
Ben led an alternative lifestyle in more ways than one, but maintained a constant devotion to thoughtful environmental planning and use of the region’s abundant resources. Before his untimely death, the North Estate was slated for preservation under his compassionate stewardship. That aim inspires his great-grandnephew.
“I wanted very badly to have an affinity for something that would become transcendent when I held it in my hands. I don’t know that I’ve ever found that thing; sometimes I suspect I have, but then I doubt myself. Perhaps I’m looking for it still.
“Perhaps that’s what life is about—the search for such a connection. The search for magic. The search for the inexplicable. Not in order to explain it, or contain it. Simply in order to feel it. Because in that recognition of the sublime, we see for a moment the entire universe in the palm of our hand. And in that moment, we touch the face of God,” Stein writes.
Trevor may be the one to fulfill Ben’s promise—if it’s not too late.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.