“Northwest Corner” by John Burnham Schwartz

Northwest Corner” by John Burnham Schwartz (2011) – 285 pages“

There are heroes, and there are the rest of us.”

                                      John Burmham Schwartz, Reservation Road

 Twelve years ago lawyer Dwight Arno got into major trouble.  He ran over a child with his car and drove off from the scene of the accident, and the child died.  Dwight’s nine year old son Sam had been asleep in the back seat of the car at the time of the accident.  Upon being released after spending several years in prison, Dwight relocated from Connecticut all the way to southern California making a new life for himself alone.  After several years, he now has a decent sales job and a few friends in his new life.  Then one day his son Sam shows up at his door now also in trouble.  In a fit of rage Sam had hit another guy in the stomach with a baseball bat in a bar fight, and now this guy is just barely hanging on to life.

 Family history repeats itself. 

“There’s a doorbell too, but he (Sam) doesn’t try it. He stands frozen. It’s drawing on him in painful stages how his running all the way here is a pathetic tracing of his father’s running from his crime twelve years ago. There is no place in the world as ‘away’”.

 It has been a long time since I read the novel ‘Reservation Road’ which is the story of the father Dwight’s original trouble.  ‘Northwest Corner’ is the story of the son’s trouble.   Not remembering that first novel very well did not impede my appreciation of ‘Northwest Corner’, because the plot of the first novel is elaborated in this novel..

 “Northwest Corner’ is divided into many very short chapters, telling the story from the eyes of various characters including the father Dwight, the son Sam, the mother Ruth, the son’s girlfriend Emma (who happens to be the sister of the child that had been run over), and the father’s potential girlfriend Penny.  I found this technique of short chapters effective in getting a full emotional check-in with each of the main characters without dwelling on any one character too long.  The constant shifts in point-of-view keep your interest sustained.    

 But there is a downside to these short chapters.   These emotional check-ins don’t advance the plot beyond the basic details which I stated above.  Not much happens in the novel beyond that.  Each of these short chapters captures the particular emotional state of that character at that time and not much else.  Sometimes the emotions seem overwrought, and they are often expressed in a grandiose style.

 The subject of ‘Northwest Corner’, that of a young man who in a violent few seconds may very well have ruined the rest of his future life, is similar to another novel I read this year, “This is How” by M. J. Hyland.  Aside from the subject however, these two novels are very different from each other.  Whereas ‘Northwest Corner’ is rather high-flown and wears its emotions on its sleeve, ‘This is How’ is understated and restrained.  Whereas ‘Northwest Corner’ only covers a few weeks in its characters’ lives, ‘This is How’ covers many years with a multitude of plot occurrences.  I probably prefer the understated approach of ‘This is How’ to the over-heated approach of ‘Northwest Corner’, but there are potentially many who would prefer the John Burnham Schwartz approach.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Oooh, I do like the sound of this — and as soon as you mentioned MJ Hyland, well, say no more.

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  2. Hi Kimbofo,
    I do prefer M J Hyland, but Schwartz is a good writer too. I’m eagerly awaiting Hyland’s next book also. It seems like in the countries where the writers are eligible for the Man Booker, there is kind of a lull now in publishing new fiction since it wouldn’t qualify until next year, but in the United States this is the hot time for fiction release so they can get established for the Christmas market.
    I’m reading your Giller reviews for sure.

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