by J. Robert Lennon
Published 2017 by Graywolf Press
$16.00 paperback ISBN 978-1555977726
By Noah Sanders
Reading J. Robert Lennon’s Broken River can be difficult at times. Not because the book isn’t a remarkably enjoyable read, one that leaves you awake at 4:30 in the morning, bleary-eyed but unable to resist the urge to turn the next page, to find out what happens next. No, rather it is because of how imminently readable Lennon’s book is, that difficulty arises. As much as Broken River is, at its dark and rotten heart, a mystery and a thriller, Lennon is too good of a writer to allow it to be just that. Broken River is a story about the narratives of our lives, how they cross and tangle, how they grow from roots we’ll never see. It is a book about how when seen from above, our lives, as surprising as they may seem, are just momentary parts of a larger story, the same old shtick played out over and over. J. Robert Lennon has crafted a wonderful mystery, an at times pulse-pounding thriller populated by a nimbly realized family unit; so much so, that in the midst of frantic page-flipping, it becomes difficult to slow down long enough to truly appreciate the deeper themes at play.
Broken River begins like so many good thrillers do, with a small town, and a brutal rape and murder of a mother and father in the woods outside of the titular town. In Lennon’s telling though, the events are seen by a spectral Observer, a constant omniscient presence in the book, one that can see the overlaid threads of narrative that connect us all, knowingly or not. The Observer watches as the house declines over six years, before a new family renovates the decrepit mess and moves in. The family—Karl, Eleanor and their daughter Irina—have moved from the city to escape failed sculptor Karl’s inability to stave off his own promiscuity and through their own actions, and the slow, familiar bend of time, are brought face-to-face with dark stain of violence that still pollutes the house. To say more would be to deprive a reader of the sheer joy into following along as Lennon, pulls you, without seeming effort, down a dark, twisting and disturbing road to a brutal climax.
There are almost Stephen King like baddies in this book—physically disgusting personas who human or not, just barely clear the definition—and Lennon’s exploration of their motivations and fears is as thrilling as any of the more suspenseful scenes that pepper the book. It goes for Lennon’s approach to the whole genre of mystery/thriller: as much as his story is a darkened flesh pulled over their bones, he does so as a jumping off point into the notion of well-worn narratives, and how they cut through all our lives. He does this with the presence of The Observer, a ghostly, god-like figure, whose almost interstitial chapters give the author free reign to noodle around in a more metaphysical sandbox. Near the end of the book, in the voice of the Observer, Lennon writes, “The desire, in other words, for narrative has abandoned these people. They no longer wish to be governed by events, to set events into motion.” The Observer acts as the authorial voice, able to not only dictate events, but to shape them by its presence alone. The author himself becomes a part of the story, as he always was, but in the form of The Observer, Lennon is able to comment on both the power of narrative as fate and its almost redundant nature. The same things happen time and time again, and if we push in close enough, they’re populated by different characters, different locales, even different endings. But from the view of The Observer, the tale of Karl, Eleanor and Irina is just another thread in the big, ugly rug of life.
If the idea of mystery with this much existential thought at play turns a reader off, be assured, this is a book that hums along. Lennon’s characters scramble and claw off the page, and the story charges along at break-neck speed. The author loves to play with the tools of the mystery genre—he introduces a set of knives early in the book, knowing full well what it means to do so—and his more action-oriented scenes pulse with baseline terror and grit. Lennon is quite adept at slowly bleeding out the secrets at the heart of his story, pulling his readers along page-by-page, hoping for resolution. And resolution does come, though it may not fulfill every readers hopes. Lennon is using the tropes of genre to make some lofty points about story-telling in general, but if you happen to miss them while reveling in the sheer enjoyment of the story unfolding, no matter, it’s still a damn fine read.