THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
BOOK REVIEW

Thriller holds back but still delivers

By Ethan Gilsdorf
July 9, 2009
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Can a thriller be both literary (as in good for you) and thrilling? Such is the question posed by J. Robert Lennon’s “Castle,’’ a slim psychological study of an emotionally scarred protagonist and his investigation into his past.

Under enigmatic circumstances, Eric Loesch returns to his hometown of Gerrysburg in upstate New York, “population 2,310 and falling.’’ He buys a beaten-down house on a remote parcel of forestland, ostensibly to fix it up. But it quickly becomes evident that Loesch, who narrates the story, also intends to rebuild himself. Somewhere in this shabby town and the impenetrable woods, Loesch both hopes for, and seems to dread, the discovery of a missing life fragment that might lead to self-understanding. (Spoiler alert: The war in Iraq holds one key.)

But as teller of this tale, Loesch withholds information, from himself and the reader. He’s more than an unreliable narrator. He’s self-deluded, in denial, shut off to his feelings, and not particularly sympathetic. The reader learns to not entirely trust Loesch, and in this mostly gripping novel this suspicion creates currents of tension and frustration.

Through roughly the first third of the book, about all he admits to is a career in “infrastructure and information.’’ In detail, we hear of his efforts at home improvement and his unexplained forays into the woods. This is a task-oriented, tightly wound guy. His internal voice is full of archaic, emotionally drained turns of phrase such as “in my temporary employ.’’ After repeated encounters with an albino deer on his property, he notes, “I am not the kind of person who subscribes to half-baked, magical ideas. . . . I have been trained to do what I am told, and to report the facts as I find them.’’

In literature, this “I’’ viewfinder is an accepted convention; it’s fiction’s best-guess construct that passes for the protagonist’s mind-soul-commentary running behind the voiced self. But this limited window occasionally gets Lennon into trouble. Loesch may claim he is not a self-reflective person, but our uptight hero is insightful, when he chooses to be so. As the story gets underway, and as we intuit more about Loesch’s back story (estranged relationship with sister, unresolved demise of parents, and worse), one begins to feel the author willfully clouding the narrator’s mind when it serves to infuse the plot with “Silence of the Lambs’’-style psycho-tension.

By the end, as he finally meets his nemesis, Loesch comes to see that “every human interaction was a psychological experiment.’’ A late-game flashback explains where Loesch’s life jumped the tracks. But at the clichéd, cliff-top climax during a thunderstorm, the novel takes an unfortunate turn, and the reader begins to wonder if Lennon’s page-turner/literary fiction crossbreed has veered too far into the territory of cheap commercial thrills. That bleached, angelic, possibly redemptive deer keeps popping up, its tail waving, “Symbol! symbol!’’

Still, Lennon effectively casts an increasingly unsettling shadow of foreboding. Perhaps the best aspect of “Castle’’ is its portrayal of the landscape itself. Much like the imaginary Greek island of Phraxos, the setting of John Fowles’s “The Magus,’’ here the labyrinthine forest seems an equal character, haunted as any fairy-tale wood, and serving as a psychic stand-in for Loesch’s tangled being.

“People, in my long experience,’’ Loesch reflects early on, “want to talk.’’ Does the book’s narrator talk too much, or not enough? Clearly, what the reader chooses to believe is another story.

Ethan Gilsdorf’s book “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms’’ will be published in September. Contact him at ethan@ethangilsdorf.com.

CASTLE By J. Robert Lennon

Graywolf Press, 224 pp., hardcover, $22

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