Category Archives: Tolstoy was right

Northwest Corner

Northwest Corner
John Burnham Schwartz
Published by Random House
304 pages
Available on
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview.
4 / 5 cupcakes

Are we destined to repeat our parents’ mistakes?

That is a central question, if not THE central question, in Northwest Corner. The sequel to Reservation Road (which I had not read, nor did I even realize that this was a sequel until I read the interview with John Burnham Schwartz at the end of the book), Northwest Corner picks up twelve years after Dwight Arno went to prison for accidentally killing a young boy. In Dwight’s case, it was the old refrain: it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up. He served less than three years in prison, after which he moved from Connecticut to California.

Dwight’s post-prison life is simple: he’s fifty, works at a sporting goods store, lives alone, and occasionally dates Penny, a single mother. Yet for all the simplicity of that day-to-day routine, the fact remains that Dwight lives across the country from Sam, with whom he has had no contact since he turned himself in to the police a dozen years ago. We learn that he has had very sporadic contact with Ruth, Sam’s mother and Dwight’s ex-wife.

So imagine Dwight’s surprise when Sam shows up in California. Sam, you see, is in a bit of trouble. After a disastrous outing in a college baseball game, he gets into a bar fight, hits his opponent with an aluminum bat, and sends said opponent to the hospital. He goes, then, to the one person who might understand him.

Except – and here is where this book gets a wee bit frustrating – Sam says nothing. He never talks to Dwight, never discusses anything. Not his anger at being abandoned, not his anger at his father’s previous treatment of his mother, not his fear that the kid in the hospital might not recover. Not his terror that he has become his father.

Yet as we discover, that reticence is very much the man Sam Arno has become. It frustrates us – as it certainly frustrates Dwight – but John Burnham Schwartz is unrelenting with Sam’s depiction. We alternately want to huge him and shake him. The same with Dwight, as a matter of fact. You want him to connect with his son, but at the same time, you are furious that his contact with his boy for twelve years consists of little more than a birthday card with a check. There were no visits east. There were no phone calls. What does Dwight expect?

The suspense of what will become of Sam’s legal problems takes a secondary role to what will become of Sam and Dwight, and even Ruth, Penny and Emma, the sister of the boy Dwight killed. Can they recover? Can they survive the continual assaults on their emotional well-being? Can they be the people they want to be?

As Dwight observes:

To build a solid, lasting bridge between two people, let alone a father and son with a history like ours, is a mighty human endeavor, and to sit here and think I might be able to accomplish it alone, with no glue, a few pickup sticks, and a dollop of spit, is nothing short of hubris. And hubris, the Greeks tell us, will see you dead. The robed chorus chanting your name until, in the last act, they bury and forget you.

Not quite the picture of paternal optimism, is he?

Told from the perspectives of Dwight, Sam, Ruth, Penny and Emma, we get to see how each of them thinks and feels about what happens to them. Emma and Penny get short shrift, Penny especially. While I liked Penny and was interested in what she was going through, I either wanted more or none at all. As it is, she seems sort of thrown in there to have the point of view of someone with no connection to the crimes in Connecticut. Emma is intriguing and baffling. Her feelings about something change completely, or so we’re told, yet we don’t really know why. Or if they really did.

But boy is this a good book. I enjoyed it tremendously, and now I want to go read Reservation Road. All of these characters have flaws, but they all desperately want to feel safe and hopeful. You will want them to as well.

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