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Not much by Northwest.

May 8, 2012

“A great American novel”, declares the quote from Abraham Verghese on the front of John Burnham Schwartz’s Northwest Corner. You lied, Abraham Verghese. I really wanted to love this book, but reading it was a bit like standing underneath a lukewarm shower that refuses to become hot: initially tolerable, ultimately unrewarding.

This isn’t to say that Northwest Corner has nothing to recommend it—Schwartz is an established literary novelist, and his reputation isn’t without cause. He’s an excellent prose stylist, and Northwest Corner, for all its faults, depicts the damning emotional reverberations of grief and guilt with searing clarity and the occasional much-needed dose of droll wit.

While Northwest Corner reintroduces characters that first appeared in one of Schwartz’s other novels, Reservation Road (which was turned into a film in 2007), it’s set twelve years after the events of its predecessor, and can be read as a standalone or as a sequel.

Dwight Arno is a fifty-year-old ex-lawyer who works in a sporting goods store in California, having fled the demons of his past—a tragic accident that fractured his family—with limited success. But the quiet equilibrium of Dwight’s new life is thrown off kilter by the arrival of his estranged son, Sam, a college baseball star who flees a terrible mistake of his own. Haunted by his actions and by what he believes to be the inevitable legacy of his father’s past crime, Sam is lost, as trapped by his present circumstances as by the recent history of his fractured family.

Northwest Corner is told from multiple perspectives—Schwartz shifts between Dwight’s dry, reflective first-person narration, and the third-person viewpoints of Sam’s mother, Ruth, who is, in her own way, as damaged by her family’s past as her ex-husband and son; Sam’s friend, Emma, who also bears an intimate connection to Dwight’s misdemeanour from twelve years ago; and Penny, the woman Dwight has recently begun dating, and with whom he cannot bring himself to share the whole truth. 

Northwest Corner is an emotionally acute study of how a single moment can change the course of a life, and how the reverberations of our mistakes can continue to ripple violently through our lives, no matter how far we try to run. Dwight may have made a new start for himself, but he never stops thinking about the single act that destroyed his—and Emma’s—family; inevitably, just like his father, the consequences of Sam’s actions swiftly catch up to him.

Everyone in Northwest Corner is damaged in some way. Through their voices and thoughts, Schwartz illuminates their attempts to overcome the pain of the past and reconcile it with their present and future.

It’s a fine and fascinating concept, but Schwartz’s execution sells it short. His chapters are very brief, and the rapid switch between voices makes it difficult to develop much empathy for any of the characters (having not read Reservation Road, I wonder how much of a difference Schwartz’s characterisation in that novel would make to a reading of this one).

Dwight is the most fully developed figure, perhaps because he’s the only one who speaks in the first person. While he’s clearly a haunted man, he has, to a degree, come to accept the consequences of his self-inflicted loss, and his narration is peppered with wry observations that lessen the weight of the book’s emotional burden: arguing with Penny in the kitchen, he steps back as she crosses the room with a heavy skillet, since ‘historically, pots and pans in the hands of aggrieved women are not my friends.’

But Schwartz’s other characters remain too distant. He chops and changes so swiftly between them that I found it difficult to develop much understanding or empathy for anyone; and while some characters, such as Penny, feature too briefly to have any lasting impact, others, like Sam, overstay their welcome. Sam’s chapters lay his emotional turmoil on with tiresome thickness: we are constantly reminded that he ‘now understands, at the level of blood, the meaning of the word ruin.’ I can almost hear the orchestral swelling in the background. Ultimately, Sam’s lack of communication and emotional turmoil feels frustrating and tedious, and I’m fairly sure it’s not intended that way.

But Schwartz’s prose is often poetic, capturing the emotional solitude of characters who seem incapable of meaningfully communicating with one another: Emma and her mother move ‘like rival figure skaters’ in the kitchen together, as they ‘perform an elaborate pas de deux in front of the refrigerator and make diplomatic way for each other at the compost bin.’

This may all sound hugely depressing, but Schwartz brings a wry lightness of touch to some of his characters’ observations, reminding us that emotional turmoil can be a source of humour as much as misery: Emma and her mother sit down to Sunday dinner ‘as if it’s old family times,’ except ‘the only missing ingredients are: (a) conversation, (b) appetites, (c) a bottle of good red wine, and (d) old family times.’ And Northwest Corner is a story of redemption as much as a reminder of how easily we can mess up our lives—while some mistakes can never be undone, attempts to repair them aren’t always futile. 

In one of the brief moments she’s afforded the chance to speak, Penny reflects that she ‘would like to learn to live without punctuation.’ We all struggle with decisions and actions that we regret, with moments from the past we wish had never happened; ‘punctuation’ is inevitable for all of us, and some people seem to end up with all the question marks. But without it, perhaps the nuances of our lives—good and bad—would simply go unnoticed and unexamined. 

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