Maybe all small towns have it: the myth of the golden boy (or girl), the one with irresistible flair and hard-nosed ambition, the kid everyone knows will go on to succeed—or, at the very least, manage to move out of the county. For the little town of Monarch, New York, the setting of Eli Gottlieb’s second novel, that favored youth was blue-eyed Rob Castor, eldest son of a handsome hardware-store owner and a woman who’d dreamed of becoming an actress. Rob was hip, ironic, charismatic: As his best friend, Nick Framingham, puts it, there was “something quicksilvery, musical, more sharply drawn about him that set him apart from the rest of us.” And, as this moody, intermittently potent book quickly reveals, he was also a murderer.
Gottlieb’s debut, the much-praised The Boy Who Went Away (1997), told in supple, confident prose the semiautobiographical story of growing up with a severely autistic brother. His similarly assured if uneven sophomore effort widens the fictional lens with a grown-up narrator—the reflective, fluent Nickcapable of touching on larger issues of loyalty and betrayal, success and failure, and love and infidelity.
As Nick relates in the shocked but avid tones of one with a ringside seat on tragedy, Rob moved to Manhattan and wrote a collection of stories set in Monarch that made him a literary celebrity; a few years later, struggling with his next book, he shot his girlfriend, herself an up-and-coming writer, and then turned the gun on himself. The telegenic combination of “good looks, talent, the New York skyline and a bad end” made Rob’s story irresistible to the media, and soon an army of reporters descended on “dozy” Monarch and woke it right up. “All of us, whether we’d known Rob personally or not, walked around with a strange lifted feeling,” Nick muses, “like a freshening wind was blowing, and maybe that wind would bring something rare and new into our lives.”
What that wind brings Nick is a nearly paralytic strain of nostalgia, as he recalls a childhood when a cool, wised-up Rob showed him a new way to masturbate (“how they do it in China”) and taught him that girls were “beautiful genetic machines that carry the whole human race on their backs.” Nick is content to gloss over Rob’s faults, which included a deep inner rage (he once slapped Nick for paying insufficient attention to a monologue) and a boorishness perhaps best typified by his drunken toast at Nick’s wedding: “Bottoms up, baby, because . . . [i]t’s all downhill from here!”
Nick’s practical wife, Lucy, with her lovely cheekbones and “fresh-banana smell,” quickly grows tired of his moping; she believes—and the reader is inclined to think rightly—that he ought to pay more attention to their faltering marriage. “You’re blowing it, Nick, and you’re gonna regret it,” Lucy warns, a threat undiluted by her request, a few seconds later, that he remember to take out the recycling (“It’s paper day. . . . No, plastic, sorry”). Nick parts the mists of the past long enough to go to marriage counseling, but soon thereafter takes solace in the arms of smutty, big-breasted Belinda, an old flame and Rob’s younger sister. The two share a moment of catharsis (“That goddamn golden little fucker! We all fell in love with him, didn’t we, Nick?” Belinda risibly cries), which is quickly followed by some hot French kissing.
In Nick Framingham, Gottlieb has crafted the sort of well-spoken narcissist whom you enjoy listening to but wouldn’t want to be friends with. His purported attention to others (he claims “a nearly feline awareness of other people’s thoughts”) can’t stand up to his self-absorption or his rationalizations (considering whether or not to have sex with Belinda, he reasons that “for the sake of decency, if nothing else, I should step aside and let the world—so apparently interested in unzipping my fly—have its way”). But Nick earns some sympathy when his obsession with the past opens up a new and troubling line of inquiry. Why were his parents always so distant? Why, in particular, does his father look at him “like a slightly slow, humorless person with whom he once, many years ago, shared a particularly long vacation?” And what about that day at the beach his father called him a bastard? Was that “‘bastard’ as in a little piece of shit, or what, exactly?” he wonders.
Now You See Him, with its adultery, long-buried secrets, and dead bodies, might sound rather more plot-centered than the average contemporary literary novel, and indeed, it borrows the brief, encouraging chapters and carefully timed revelations (or at least hints thereof) of the thriller. But the suspense never gets particularly high. Perhaps that’s because narrative tension is best achieved when a reader is deeply invested in a main character (in a Jack Ryan book, the seemingly impossible tasks facing our CIA-analyst hero keep us rooting for him; in a Frank Bascombe novel, we’re drawn onward by detailed frictions in the flux of normal life). While Gottlieb is plainly much closer to Richard Ford than to Tom Clancy, the moral stagnancy of his main character and the late-game revelations of his story suggest a faith in plot twists that is perhaps misplaced.
One could blame this on the new quasi-genre known as the “literary page-turner” (though shouldn’t all books, save fix-it manuals and the like, be page-turners?) or on a new fascination with plot that has serious novelists writing serialized crime fiction (à la Michael Chabon) or on publishers and readers, who prefer books with murders in them to books without. Or one could simply argue that Gottlieb tries, admirably, to blend suspense with domestic drama but fails.
As things get grimmer for Nick, his piecemeal descriptions of the morning Rob entered Kate’s apartment and slowly decided to shoot her “right between her green eyes” come as almost refreshing breaks in his account of a disintegrating marriage. Regret, Nick comes to learn, is a very hard thing—and not even nostalgia is a victimless crime.
Emily Chenoweth’s first novel, Hello Goodbye, will be published by Random House in 2009.