Amity Gaige’s Schroder, her third novel, is a daring book. It tells a clean, suspenseful, economical story that is also a clever act of social commentary. It asks us to empathize with one of the most benighted figures in today’s marital hierarchy: the sketchy divorced dad, in this case the title character, who is at best an “erratic” father, a laid-off at-home parent unwilling to fret about things like BPA and the dangers of Mountain Dew, and more than willing to pick up a dead fox with his young daughter and study it. On the verge of divorce, this father wants—unbelievably, and to the frustration of his wife—joint custody of his daughter.
Unbelievably, because this deadbeat dad turns out to be potentially dangerous:
He kidnaps his eight-year-old daughter Meadow, having realized his wife might discover that he’s been lying about his identity. Eric Kennedy is a not a native-born son of Massachusetts, not a distant relation of those Kennedys, but an East German émigré by the name of Erik Schroder. Schroder is loosely inspired by a (much more melodramatic) true story: In 2008, a Boston resident calling himself Clark Rockefeller kidnapped his seven-year-old daughter after his wife divorced him and took sole custody, having realized that “Clark” had told her elaborate lies about his identity. During the kidnapping, police discovered that Clark wasn’t a Rockefeller at all but a German émigré who had possibly been involved in a murder.
As a case study of the unreliable narrator, Schroder is beautifully managed. The story is relatively simple, and like Lolita—a predecessor—it takes the form of a missive sent from the penitentiary. In this case, the letter is a plea for understanding from Schroder, now imprisoned for his abduction of their child, to his estranged wife, Laura—his explication and apologia for kidnapping Meadow. It’s a canny device, as it leads us to empathize with Erik even though he’s not exactly trustworthy. Gaige (author of O My Darling and The Folded World) is an accomplished writer, and the novel elegantly navigates its ethical razor’s edge, bringing the reader along on a kind of joyride gone wrong. Schroder’s letter is half sympathy-inducing mea culpa, half a bristling act of bravado and self-ignorance. Like Lolita, Schroder is a paean to the road trip, to the peculiar imaginative space created by a father and a young girl alone together. (Surely it is an explicit homage to Nabokov that Meadow wishes to become a lepidopterist.) But Schroder is not dastardly or sexually deviant, as Humbert Humbert is in Lolita. He’s just a little delusional.
We know the real Erik from the beginning, though Laura doesn’t. The novel opens with the revelation that in 1984, fourteen years old and desperate to assimilate, Erik Schroder applied to “a boys’ camp on Ossipee Lake in New Hampshire” using the assumed name Eric Kennedy. He doesn’t explicitly lead anyone to believe he’s related to the Kennedy clan, but he doesn’t disabuse them of the idea either. As he puts it, the “surname wasn’t hard to choose. I wanted a hero’s name, and there was only one man I’d ever heard called a hero in Dorchester.” As Eric Kennedy, he embarks on a self-transformation from confused immigrant (who mistakenly believes he needs his German passport in order to cross from Massachusetts to Rhode Island) to smooth insider (who isn’t impressed by the boy who hops out of his Corvette without using the door). There is one connection between the two Erics: Both lost their mother far too young, and in Schroder’s silence about what happened to his own mother when he and his father escaped Communist East Germany, we begin to glimpse the cracks in his facade, the strain in the narration. As Schroder concedes from jail, his camp application seemed innocent to him, but it was also “pure canard. A fraudulent, distorted, spurious, crooked, desperate fiction.” One of the latent questions Schroder invites us to contemplate is whether a seemingly innocent lie can rot into moral darkness.
Gaige has always been interested in identity—in particular, how marriage can corrode people’s sense of themselves. In her first novel, O My Darling (2005), about a wedded couple who become alienated, she wrote, “Marriage is the only punishment great enough to fit the crime of love.” Novelists like Gaige remind us that we live not in the age of the nineteenth-century marriage plot but in the era of the twenty-first-century divorce plot. For those who believe that such plots are “narrow” and “domestic,” Gaige’s work, especially here, acts as a bracing corrective. Marriage in its current form—marriages that can be left, marriages that come with a lot of expectation on the part of both partners—is a kind of devil’s brew, in which the seams of character unstitch and human behavior in all its implausible strangeness spills out.
It helps that Gaige writes with a cool strangeness, a strong sense of style, as in this seemingly incidental passage about driving with a tired child:
In the backseat, Meadow unclasped her belt buckle and placed her glasses to the side. After a series of contortions and arm torques, her head popped out of the head hole and she smoothed down the fabric and replaced her glasses. . . . In the headlights behind us, the crown of her head was a star of static. It’s ridiculous, I wanted to say, how many steps there are to everything, how endlessly procedural this life is. I wanted to apologize for it.
Gaige isn’t afraid of formal experiment. Schroder’s letter is full of digressive footnotes, and evokes with great intricacy the overlapping truths and fictions that have propped up his life to date. Schroder, who winds up a real-estate agent in Albany, never tells his aging father about his new identity. Conversely, he never reveals his old identity to his capable, powerful wife, whom he falls in love with at camp as she’s putting a splint on an injured child. Laura is as orderly and structured (she carries homemade gorp around in sandwich bags) as Erik aspires to be. Getting married only makes him “rededicate himself to his made-up past.” But this essential lie proves to be the one that will destroy him. (You can lie to the state, but you better not lie to your wife.) After the birth of their daughter, and the 2008 housing-market crash, Erik becomes a stay-at-home dad, and an amateur scholar of the etiology of silence. The cracks in his persona gape. When he and Laura separate five years later, after growing apart (apparently to Erik’s surprise), he notes that the “true flammability of my life became clear to me.” He vows that Meadow would be “the last thing to burn.”
Of course, the invented identity means that Erik can’t fight for custody, and when Laura grants him only every other weekend, he realizes how very little power he has, how fragile is his right to parenthood. And one afternoon, he kidnaps Meadow, almost accidentally, sliding into this boundary-exploding decision so gently that the reader half forgives him for it. After all, we have been primed to like the lonely boy he once was.
Schroder is by turns dry, peculiar, expansive, and visionary. He revels in Meadow’s preternatural perspicacity—“the soul keeps the body up,” she tells him at one point. When an old lady scolds him for not bringing coloring books for his daughter on a long bus ride, Meadow exclaims to her father that the woman “doesn’t know how big our imaginations are.” At another point she tells him that the brain is what makes ice. But Meadow is also poignantly mistrustful, having internalized her mother’s concerns about her father.
One of the accomplishments of the book is how energetically it conveys the wild tenacity of the parent-child bond, the power of preverbal connections. Laura may disapprove—and her disapproval may ultimately corrupt Meadow’s innate affection for her wayward father—but some pagan piece of Meadow will always love the father who wades into the lake with all his clothes on to meet her. Fathers get to be the children in today’s marriages; ironically, the women’s movement may have liberated women from the house, but it hasn’t liberated them from the burden of their own sense of responsibility, which manifests in frustration with how chaotic the father is permitted to be in the face of all there is to worry about. Schroder invokes this when he reflects on having avoided, for the most part, women who “use me as a catch-all for their disappointments.”
If the tragedy of nineteenth-century divorce was that women had no rights to their children (just reread Anna Karenina to remember the force of that plotline), the shame of twenty-first-century divorce, Gaige suggests, is that the successes of the women’s movement have led to a scenario in which husbands—expected to be more hands-on than ever before—often end up deeply disenfranchised. And there’s not a lot they can do about it. (Compared with divorced mothers, very few divorced fathers end up with sole custody, although, of course, not as many men apply for it—in part because lawyers discourage them from doing so, since the cases are so hard to win.) For all these reasons, there’s a pathos to Gaige’s portrait of the estrangements and intimacies of a divorced father alone with his kid—a subject that remains relatively unexplored in fiction.
As for the footnotes: Erik never makes the connection explicit, but the reader can easily see why Schroder is so obsessed with silence. While I’m not entirely persuaded that their presence in his highly performative, brilliantly crafted letter ultimately works in this fictional context, they do underscore a crucial silence that lends this book its mythos. Schroder’s inability to tell Laura of his true origins stems from his father’s reluctance to tell him what really happened to his mother, why he hasn’t seen her since he was a little boy. Ultimately, we get a picture, a sad one, of what really took place, and it both does and doesn’t change everything. Gaige, a gifted storyteller, knows when to be silent.
Meghan O'Rourke is the author of the memoir The Long Goodbye (Riverhead, 2011).