The Night Country

by Stewart O'Nan

Published by Farrar, Straus, Giroux

229 pages, 2003



Sometimes They Come Back

Reviewed by David Abrams


Every small town in America has a tragedy that goes something like this: a car full of teenagers crashes on a dark road and young lives turn to legend. Maybe some live while others die horribly, maybe they're on their way home from the prom, maybe they've been drinking, maybe they're stone sober and an evil patch of black ice is the culprit. Whatever the circumstance, the teen car crash is a sad part of our nostalgic culture. In death, the teens take on a grandeur and status they probably never enjoyed in life, their legacy a smiling yearbook photo and a small white cross erected by the side of the road. In the Wyoming town where I grew up, a sweet-faced girl, one year younger than me, died when her brakes failed on an icy turn less than two miles from her home. Even today, I can't picture that stretch of road without the words "snuffed out" coming to mind.

Avon, Connecticut knows all about brief candles prematurely snuffed. The town's latest tragedy took place on Halloween night when a Camry loaded with five teens wrapped itself around a tree on a country road, instantly killing three, leaving another severely brain damaged and the fifth miraculously unhurt. Now, exactly one year later, the town is painfully reliving the memory of that October night.

That's the premise for Stewart O'Nan's new novel, The Night Country, a tale that literally haunts the reader from page one. The story is narrated by the ghost of Marco, who died in the crash along with Toe and Danielle. The trio of spirits restlessly roams the town, watching over their parents, their friends, the police officer who responded to the crash and, especially the survivors, brain-damaged Kyle and unscratched Tim. In the course of the 24 hours covered by the novel, Brooks the cop will try to come to grips with decisions he made a year ago, while Tim will put into motion a plan he's been plotting for the past five months, an act he thinks will bring him peace and redemption. The ghosts serve as our guides and Greek chorus as we watch the day's events unfold. In O'Nan's hands, the sentences pop and crackle and are never less than enthralling:

Brooks remembers jumping out of the Vic and running for the tree and the Camry -- unbelieving -- and then stopping once he'd gotten there, his training evaporating at the sight of us. (Because the car was small and we weren't pretty.) His first instinct was to look around for someone else who could help. In the backseat a boy's voice was trying the same hurt vowel sound over and over, a cat meowing.

As in his masterful The Circus Fire, O'Nan displays an uncanny knack for describing common tragedy -- there, the 1944 Hartford fire; here, the Halloween car crash which kills three teens nobody cared about while they were still alive (now, "we're the kids in that car wreck"). Like Ray Bradbury (to whom the book is dedicated and whose influence whispers across each page), O'Nan uses the horrible, chilling events of our lives to show how we humans continue to press on undaunted through this mortal coil. There's truth to be found on nearly every page of this book.

There's also a lot of damned fine writing. O'Nan's imaginative vision is intriguing, convincing us we're overwatched by ghosts -- the just-killed and the long-dead, who haunt our steps, trail their foggy fingers through our heads. Parenthetically interrupting their narration, O'Nan's teenage ghosts are sardonic and wise ("One week we're history, martyred gods, then forgotten"), as if the afterlife has given them X-ray vision into the hearts of the living. Witness the book's hypnotic opening words:

Come, do you hear it? The wind -- murmuring in the eaves, scouring the bare trees. How it howls, almost musical, a harmony of old moans…. Come with us, out into the night. Come now, America the lovesick, America the timid, the blessed, the educated, come stalk the dark backroads and stand outside the bright houses, calm as murderers in the yard, quiet as deer. Come, you slumberers, you lumps, arise from your legion of sleep and fly over the wild woods. Come, all you dreamers, all you zombies, all you monsters. What are you doing anyway, paying the bills, washing the dishes, waiting for the doorbell? Come on, take your keys, leave the bowl of candy on the porch, put on the suffocating mask of someone else and breathe.

The Night Country drives relentlessly forward to a conclusion that seems inevitable, though we wish it weren't so. As Tim and Brooks hurtle toward one final intersection, we secretly hope their paths will split and that everyone can go home -- still unredeemed, yes, but also still alive.

Nonetheless, O'Nan is smart enough to know that very few things in life turn out the way we'd hoped, so why should fiction be any different? In The Night Country, just as in the world beyond books, there are impulsive, regrettable last-minute decisions. And there is the slippery road, the short yelp of brakes, the acrid whiff of burnt rubber and the sudden sad silence that continues to haunt long after the last chapter is written. | November 2003


David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.