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'Northwest Corner' takes families to edge and back

So John Burnham Schwartz is swinging for the fences: this conventional but engaging and humane novel of tragedy and redemption begins with a baseball game, and a strikeout of the worst kind, given the circumstances (bases loaded, a college playoff game) -- 3 called strikes, the hitter not even lifting his bat when the challenge comes. In that big moment, the weakest, meekest way to fail.

For UConn senior Sam Arno, things only get worse, after the team buses home and exasperated Hank the driver, impatient in the emptied bus with unmoving, slumped Sam, in an act of kindness finally says, "Where to, DiMaggio?"

The answer kicks off a chain of events that becomes another earthquake for Sam's already shattered family -- ruined in Schwartz's earlier novel "Reservation Road," also a "MAJOR MOTION PICTURE" starring Mark Ruffalo, Joaquin Phoenix, Jennifer Connelly and Mira Sorvino. (Not to be confused with "Revolutionary Road," an iconic book by Richard Yates and even major-er movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet and directed by Sam Mendes.)

"Northwest Corner" is the Connecticut area where Dwight and Ruth Arno lived and raised son Sam, and from which Dwight departed to Santa Barbara, Calif., to lay low after the events of "Reservation Road": in a hit-and-run accident, lawyer Dwight killed the 10-year-old son of Ethan and Grace Learner and goes to prison for the coverup. "Northwest Corner" begins 12 years after the accident.

American life has no second acts, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Schwartz attempts to disagree, using two classic artistic strategies: 1) putting normal humans in an extreme, abnormal situation; and 2) the doppelganger, a double. The abnormal is Sam's crisis, a violent act that could derail his life, an unnatural disaster that causes he and his divorced and estranged parents to reconnect and face things previously avoided: themselves, and each other.

The doppelganger is the Learners, the other family shattered in "Reservation Road." In "Northwest Corner," Schwartz implicitly juxtaposes the path the Arnos follow with that of the Learners, whose presence is represented by daughter Emma, now a Yale student and one of a quintet of characters through which the story is related, in a narrative divided into 4 parts.

The other narrative views are Dwight, Ruth, Sam, and Penny -- a Santa Barbara woman with whom Dwight is involved.

Schwartz chooses to use third-person for all voices except Dwight, whose version of things is related in first person. This choice provides an axis and maintains an emotional spotlight on the character who has the longest road to home, metaphorically speaking.

Putting characters in extremis allows a writer to test them, and lets readers observe and learn. The doppelganger allows the writer to show, like an experiment involving twins, how characters with the same general makeup might fare differently, and why.

Sam Arno after his bad game goes to a bar, and is mopily minding his own business when he's attacked from behind by a townie who thinks Sam's flirting with the dude's date. Sam loses it, and reaches into his UConn duffel bag for his aluminum bat. Bad things happen, but take a little time to reach a legal-criminal tipping point, as Sam's victim is not interested in involving police and Sam bolts Connecticut the next morning, just a few weeks before he's scheduled to graduate. Sam runs not to the mother with whom he's lived since he last saw his father 12 years earlier, but to his father, a near-stranger, in Santa Barbara.

There, Dwight day-manages a sporting goods store owned by a Latino entrepreneur who is a rock-solid family man and a believer in second chances -- another doppelganger? -- who hired middle-aged Dwight (50 as the novel begins) knowing he's got a checkered past.

Troubled son full of self-doubt and anger like his father, and troubled father riven by the faultline of his failures as man, husband and father are now trying to build a bridge over it. Troubled mother is still reeling from Dwight's crime and living in a present shadowed by a son like his father, a second divorce, by breast cancer.

Through a long process, going from Connecticut to California to Connecticut, the three begin to realize that their fates are not fore-ordained by the past or by blood. Sam and Dwight each conclude, independently, no more hiding. Sam returns to face the full consequences of his act, as does Dwight.

Emma's parents Ethan and Grace also divorced as a result of the shattering loss of their son and a mourning like amputation. Ethan Learner's gone -- unable to learn? -- and Grace, 12 years later, is struggling to make a living and a life.

In a climactic Connecticut scene, Sam and Dwight accompany Ruth to a medical appointment to find out if her cancer has returned. When the answer is no, the healing three decide to visit a grocery store to buy a celebratory dinner. At the same time, Emma and her mother are shopping, also preparing a victory dinner -- for Grace, the landing of a big client for the landscaping business (symbolism alert: growing things?), which she fell into following her divorce. The new client means the promise, by extension, of her recovery.

The Arnos and the Learners collide in an aisle at the store, after 12 years. All the pretty dreams on both sides disappear, at least temporarily. Emma's mother runs out of the store in an explosive meltdown. Dwight decides he can't stay in Connecticut and risk doing that to Grace again. Sam decides he wants to go with his father.

In a brief, epiphanic moment at the end, Ruth offers the way not to a happy ending, but to grace, and not to closure, but to an opening.

Ed Taylor is a freelance Buffalo critic.


Northwest Corner

By John Burnham Schwartz

Random House

285 pages, $26