Novelist as Theater Director

theater, stage

(photo: wikimedia)

A thrilling weekend in Williamstown and Lenox, Massachusetts, with a group of serious theater lovers—four plays in three days and rich presentations in-between. Unexpectedly, one of these presentations—a detailed review of the steps of play production—mirrored many of the challenges an author faces in preparing a work of fiction. Let me explain.

Once a theater company decides to produce a particular play its first step is to hire a director who will create the theatrical production. The director {the “author,” in this analogy and here you have to bear with me} helps build the creative team and find the cast {characters}, blocks the play and decides who does what when {plot}, and guides the aesthetic process of the production {editing}.

A large creative design team is needed to help put the play together. These designers take on various tasks, in keeping with the director’s vision for the play and what this specific production is to convey. While of course a director starts with a script, just as an author begins with a more or less firm idea, the way a play emerges in its staging is unique to each production. Literary critics have decided there are only about a half-dozen basic plots, which suggests much of what differentiates the tens of thousands of novels published each year results from loosely analogous attention to the same creative elements a play director must consider.

In theater, set design establishes the physical world of the play; costumes, makeup, and props help define characters. In novels, authors must use description of the scene, and the appearance and clothing of the characters for exactly the same purpose. Lighting and sound design help create a play’s mood and tell the audience “where to look,” just as authors establish mood and focus attention—or, in the case of a mysteries, misdirect it—on key information. Dialect coaches make sure the words come out the way a character of a given era, nationality, and class would say them, and on the page, dialog has to ring true, too.

Choreographers and fight directors design the more complex or risky stage action. Stage-fights have to be both safe and realistic. (Realistic is easy, we were told, safe is hard.) Fiction has similar problems. A battle between two people or a hundred has to seem dangerous—even when it involves a continuing character who we know will survive to appear in the next book. At the same time, heroes must escape in a plausible way. They can’t get off too easily. A recent thriller I read had a confusing scene near the end, in which it wasn’t clear which shooters were inside their cars, in the street, along the wall, or wherever. I couldn’t visualize it, even after three re-reads. In my writing group, we call this a problem in choreography.

While the theater director has a whole team to take care of these essential component parts, the novelist works solo.

In casting a play, a director thinks about the skills and personalities of potential actors, and whether they can fill their roles. The author likewise must decide what type of person to create for the role they will play in the novel. How much can people such as those they describe believably stretch when facing the demands the plot places on them? How are other characters likely to react to them? At the same time, they must avoid creating stereotypes and “stock characters,” who would move through the novel like cardboard cutouts.

The whole process of rehearsing a play—from the initial read-through, to the blocking, through final rehearsals—echoes the editing process. Plays aren’t rehearsed just once; it takes time and myriad adjustments and refinements for all the creative parts to mesh together. Similarly, thinking of a novel draft as similar to a theater production, it’s easy to see the kinds of editing an author must do: tuning up all aspects of design/description, focus, realism, choreography, and character development to best serve the ultimate product—that best-selling, award-winning novel taking shape in the theater of the author’s mind.

***The Storm Murders

farm, snow, winter

(photo: M Pincus, creative commons license)

By John Farrow – Farrow is the pen name that acclaimed Canadian writer Trevor Ferguson selected when he decided to try his hand at writing genre fiction, and, if I have this right, this is his fourth book featuring detective Émile Cinq-Mars and the first of a planned “storm murders” trilogy.

In this mystery/thriller, prickly retired Montreal Sergeant-Detective Cinq-Mars finds himself flattered and cajoled and inevitably drawn into helping in the investigation of a rural Quebec double-murder that culminated in the additional slaying of two young Sûreté du Québec police officers lured to the remote farmhouse by a phone call.

Perhaps Cinq-Mars decides to aid this investigation because he is intrigued by the crime itself, the lack of apparent motive, and the absence of the killer’s footprints in the newly fallen snow around the house. Perhaps it is the puzzling entreaties of a senior FBI agent, looking for answers in a case that’s way out of his jurisdiction. Perhaps it is the bleak persistence of a Canadian winter making the days weigh heavy on Cinq-Mars’s insufficiently occupied brain. Or perhaps it is his wife Sandra’s startling intimation that she might leave him, making the investigation a welcome preoccupation that might enable him to in some way resurrect the man she’d fallen in love with.

The FBI agent, frustratingly close-mouthed, at least reveals that the deaths of the Quebec couple share certain grisly similarities with a series of murders in the United States. All have involved a married couple, always they’ve occurred after a major calamity. As none of the neighbors know much about the couple, relatively new arrivals to the area, and in the hope of finding out more details that would suggest a connection among these deaths, Cinq-Mars travels to New Orleans. The first pair of murders occurred there, shortly after Hurricane Katrina. Sandra accompanies him, because the trip promises to be a semi-vacation. Both she and Cinq-Mars hope a change of marital venue will help them reconnect.

Booklist has called the Cinq-Mars books “the best series in crime fiction today,” and this is the first of them I’ve read. Farrow’s writing style, honed by writing literary fiction, is confident and sophisticated, and the book starts strong. In general, the characters and setting are interesting and well-developed, especially good-humored multi-racial NOPD detective Pascal Dupree and ambitious hotel security chief Everardo Flores, who enliven every scene they’re in. Unfortunately, the plot was not as robust as these other elements. I guessed early on (and I’m not a particularly insightful guesser) why the FBI was interested in this series of murders. Farrow receives praise from some reviewers for writing character-driven mysteries, but for my taste, Cinq-Mars’s examinations of his feelings about religion, his wife, and retirement are rather too long. The denouement also was drawn out past the point of believability, including both conversation and events that seemed unlikely.

While this book has much to recommend it, especially for admirers of the series, in the end it requires some suspension of disbelief.

A slightly longer version of this review appears—along with reviews of many new crime and thriller novels—at the Crime Fiction Lover website.

What I Learned about Book Reviews (from writing them): Part 2

reading, beach

(photo: El Coleccionista de Instantes Fotografía & Video, creative commons license)

Component Parts

When I review a novel or memoir, I look for basic elements of character development, plot, and setting. (“Plot” in memoir is achieved by the selection of life events included.) Lack of believability in any of these undermines my confidence in the story as a whole.

It doesn’t matter whether a book is set in 1800, 2015, or 4500, I look for characters who act and speak believably, certain human psychological patterns held constant. A character from pre-Christian Britain will not think like a hipster living in London today. This other-mindedness is what Lauren Davis achieved so well in Against a Darkening Sky. Even people who are alike in many ways—siblings, even—will not all think and react the same way. Characters need to be individuals, growing organically out of their time and place, with yearnings, weaknesses, and strengths unique to themselves.

Since I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers, the plot needs to be tight, too, with all major questions answered. I’d rather have a character admit “we may never know,” if something is truly unknowable within the confines of the story, than think the author led me on with certain plot points or clues, then forgot about them.

An interesting setting—place or time period—is always welcome, but even the most unpromising settings can come alive and in some cases can become almost a character in and of themselves—Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Dickens’s 19th c. London, Hogwarts. These stories could not exist anywhere else.

Style

A writer’s style can add enormously to reading pleasure, and an engaging style can sometimes distract the reader from problems in theme, plot, and characterization. In the end, though, style without substance may feel like the literary equivalent of empty calories, or the movie you enjoy but during the closing credits ask yourself, “what was that, anyway?”

I’m drawn to books with a rather straightforward style typical of the thriller/mystery genre (Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos). But I’m a sucker for an apt metaphor (Michael Chabon, Margaret Atwood) and enjoy their liberal use. The key is for the style to match the intent of the book. I’ve read Cormac McCarthy books with a spare—almost barren—style about loneliness in the Southwest desert, and the one I’m reading now (Suttree), set in Knoxville, Tennessee, is florid and looping and filled with unsavory bits, like the river the character lives on.

Cutting Slack

Finally, there’s something to be said for reader expectations. If a novel is by an unknown writer, readers may plunge in with few expectations, and I tend to cut debut authors a little slack. Points—and lots of them—for effort. But if the writer is famous, especially super-star famous, readers rightly have expectations. Which is why, though you couldn’t fault him on plot or style (some reviewers did ding him on character), Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes was a disappointment. It followed a tried-and-true—or should I say tired-and-true—formula. Expertly. But take me somewhere new, please. You’re capable of it.

A Note on Errors

Self-published books, print-on-demand books, small press books, and even books from the Big Houses these days contain more errors than formerly. There aren’t the eagle-eyed copy editors and proofreaders around any more to catch these things. The author had read the manuscript a hundred times–it’s hard to see them and out of the skill set, perhaps. Plus, new kinds of errors crop up thanks to spellcheck and auto-formatting. Occasional typos, changes of font, homonym confusion, and the like I can live with, but beyond a certain frequency, they distract and detract. In my reading experience, blatant carelessness about these “little things” inevitably spills over into fundamental aspects of the work—illogical plot choices, poor character development, tin-ear dialog, hackneyed description.

A recent book I read, by a highly regarded author, included a kidnapping accomplished with a chloroform-soaked handkerchief. Though an staple of old-fashioned movies and television, this method of knocking someone out actually doesn’t work, as I easily found out when fact-checking my own writing. (Yes, fiction does need to be fact-checked!) I had to come up with another method. This author didn’t check. The problem isn’t so much the error itself, the greater problem, again, is losing the reader’s confidence and exposing the fragility of the created world.

Your Criteria?

I’d be interested to know what aspects of a novel or memoir are most important to you. The uproar over Amazon’s new Kindle Unlimited payment method, which pays authors based on the number of pages of their book actually read, shows that Amazon and authors alike recognize readers often don’t finish books. What about them fails to hold your interest?

Further Reading

  • “What’s Wrong with Reading Only Half a Book?” by Lincoln Michel for Electric Lit.
  • “Amazon set to pay self-published authors as little as $0.006 per page read,” by Alex Hern for The Guardian, 2 July 2015; the comments are enlightening.
  • Yesterday’s post described my 1-5 star system, the primacy of the reader’s perspective, and some thoughts about the “bottom line.”

4 Reasons to Read Literary Fiction

child reading, children's books

(photo: Tim Pierce, creative commons license, https://www.flickr.com/photos/qwrrty/2100913578/)

Reading is good for you! It brings pleasure, it broadens perspectives, it builds language, it imparts knowledge . . . readers know this. Research is starting to show that what we read is also important and are finding positive results from reading literary fiction, as compared to non-fiction or popular fiction. A recent round-up of this research by Will S. on The Literacy Site included the following four examples.

  1. People who read literary fiction are more empathetic. Reading a story provides a compelling experience that helps the reader understand another person’s mental state, say researchers David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano. In other words, it provides the experience of walking in another person’s shoes, and “the more stories you read, the more shoes you’ve tried on,” says Will S.
  2. Stanford University researchers have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRIs) to study the brains of people active engaged in close reading—in this case, a text by Jane Austen. The results show that careful reading (versus skimming) engages many parts of the brain and requires “the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions.” This suggests that studying literature—beyond its other benefits—trains people to engage their brains more fully, an increasingly valuable skill in an era of constant distraction.
  3. In an article titled “The greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing prejudice,” children who identified with the character Harry Potter and read and discussed specific passages about prejudice responded to Harry’s “sympathy for marginalized groups” (such as Muggles or Mudbloods) by showing greater open-mindedness toward outsider groups in contemporary society (immigrants, refugees, gays).
  4. Harry Potter works for children and literary fiction works for adults because “the characters are complex, ambiguous, difficult to get to know, etc. (in other words, human) versus stereotyped, simple,” according to Kidd and Castano’s research cited above. Literary fiction forces the reader to work harder at fleshing out the characters, and trying to understand what makes them tick mirrors what is required in relationships with other people.

In sum, while reading in general has many benefits, “literary reading amplifies this effect,” Will S. says. “By reading a challenging book, you’re not only becoming a smarter person, you’re also become more empathetic.” Harder books stimulate the brain in more ways. So, he recommends, “In choosing your next book, make it a tough one. Your brain will thank you.

 

“Where You From?”

Lonesome DoveThe .Mic website has compiled a map purportedly showing the most popular novel set in each state based on Goodreads scores for books with more than 50,000 ratings. (What I found out from this is that Goodreads lets you search books by place, albeit not very efficiently. Try it here.) Many of these most popular books have been adapted into movies, “perhaps not coincidentally,” says .Mic author Kevin O’Keeffe, demonstrating the symbiosis between the two art forms.

The most popular book set in New York, no surprise, is The Godfather, and California’s the more high-falutin East of Eden. The choice for Texas, Lonesome Dove, seems perfect; Kansas’s is, predictably, The Wizard of Oz; Hawaii’s is Hawaii. The most popular book set in New Jersey is the 1970 Judy Blume classic, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. Come on, New Jersey literati—nothing in the last 45 years?

Washingtonians will probably be surprised to see that the most popular book “set in D.C.” is Leaves of Grass, which as far as I know wasn’t set any particular place and isn’t a novel. Perhaps the collection’s ballooning from an original edition of 12 poems to, with multiple revisions over the years, more than 400, is what makes it especially apt for the nation’s capital. (My quick check of the Goodreads data suggests this pick should have been The Exorcist.)

Stephen King’s The Stand captures four states: Idaho, Vermont, Colorado, and Arkansas. The biggest surprise, however, was seeing Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet as the most popular book set in Utah. Really? Most of that book is set in London and the information about Utah is second-hand and none-too-accurate. And here we hit upon the biggest flaw in the method used to create this map. The story merely has to be plunked into a state, it does not necessarily have to reflect the people, geography, history, or culture of the place. Not at all the same thing as Faulkner’s Mississippi, or Cheever’s Manhattan and suburbs. This is how the post-apocalyptic Station Eleven—a novel whose catastrophes erase all borders and whose setting represents no locales that are more than names—can be picked to represent Michigan.

Of course, anyone can quibble. Still, it’s an interesting exercise and revealing something about how people’s opinions form about states they do not know. When we think of Staten Island, do we picture the Corleone family? When we think of Mississippi, do we recall The Help, and Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird? Sure we do.

Mr. Darcy Revealed?

Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

(drawing: C.E. Brock, 1895, wikipedia)

At last! According to numerous media stories, including this one in The Express of London, British journalist and historian Dr. Susan Law has discovered the real-life model for that Pride and Prejudice heart-throb, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Law says Darcy was patterned after “the intense, charming and often controversial 1st Earl of Morley John Parker.”

According to Law, Austen became acquainted with Parker when she spent time at his home, Saltram House in Plymouth (pictured below), which happened to coincide with her work on P&P. Parker’s second wife, Frances, was one of Austen’s near friends. Frances also had a literary bent and, Law says, initially Austen’s anonymously published novels P&P and Sense and Sensibility were believed to have been written by Frances.

Saltram House, Jane Austen

(artwork: wikipedia)

Coincidentally, Saltram House was used in filming S&S in 1995. It represented “Norland,” the home Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters were forced to leave after Mr. Dashwood died. A scandalous end to John Parker’s first marriage may have inspired the adultery that shakes the family of Mansfield Park, Austen’s third novel.

Law maintains that in five years of research she has found letters and documents that bolster her case. These claims are detailed in her new book, provocatively titled Through The Keyhole: Sex, Scandal And The Secret Life of The Country House (I’m not planning to read and review this one, so I’ve provided the link below now, in case you want to). “The physical similarities in them are obvious,” she says. “The Earl was tall, dark, handsome and slightly brooding.”

Although she’s yet to find that “cast iron bit of evidence,” after spending so much time and effort on her researches, she says, “I am pretty convinced.” I haven’t read her evidence, OK, but I can’t believe the wife of my Mr. Darcy would ever cheat on him.

Related articles

*****The Orphan Master’s Son

Kim Jong Un, North Korea

Kim Jong Un, the Dear Leader (photo: petersnoopy, Creative Commons License)

By Adam Johnson – A prodigious creative imagination put together this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Few Americans have visited North Korea in recent decades; if they have, they’ve seen little other than what their minders are authorized to show them, and they’ve talked with no one outside their official itinerary. We cannot “see for ourselves” what living in such a massively regulated, brutal nation is like. In such a circumstance, it’s daunting to create a fully developed world, and it would be easy to create fictional characters who are two-dimensional, stereotypic. But Johnson has created such a world and peopled his book with true individuals who act believably, even when what they must do is unbelievably horrifying.

While the reader acquires a bone-chilling sense of North Korean life and how survival requires quick wits and artful deception, in no way does this novel feel like a political tract. What the reader comes to understand are the daily accommodations of action and speech and even thought that the system under Kim Jong Un, the Dear Leader, requires.

The first third of the book is about Jun Do (John Doe), the orphan master’s son who declares he is not an orphan. At various points, Jun Do has chances to escape, to defect to South Korea, to abandon ship in Japan, to hide out in the United States, but he doesn’t take them, in part because of the danger such an action would create for his companions and because (speaking of South Korea) “he was scared that if he saw it with his own eyes, his entire life would mean nothing. Stealing turnips from an old man who’d gone blind from hunger? That would have been for nothing. Sending another boy instead of himself to clean vats at the paint factory? For nothing.”

Yet the book is rich in both love and humor. Seeing Jun Do cope with the disconnect between reality and the government’s constant diet of lies can be simultaneously amusing and heart-breaking.

In the second part of the book, the narration alternates among several sources, and includes this story told by a young interrogator of political prisoners about the talk every father has with his son, “in which he brings the child to understand that there are ways we must act, things we must say, but inside, we are still us, we are family”:

father and son

(photo: pixshark)

 I was eight when my father had this talk with me . . . [After denouncing the boy in a terrifying way] . . [m]y father said, “See, my mouth said that, but my hand, my hand was holding yours. If . . . someday you must say something like that to me, I will know it’s not really you. That’s inside. Inside is where the son and the father will always be holding hands.”

Some chapters of this section are told via the official and ubiquitous government loudspeakers, which blare constantly in homes, factories, and public places. The extent to which the population is taken in by these jingoistic broadcasts is unclear, since cracks in the façade of total loyalty to the Dear Leader are dangerous.

Regarding the relentless suffering, one character says, “When the Dear Leader wanted you to lose more, he gave you more to lose.” He gave Jun Do love in the person of actress Sun Moon, and contrary to the Dear Leader’s expectation, love saved them both.

Despite all the paranoia, torture, starvation, slave labor camps, and dark and dripping prison cells, incredibly, I found this beautifully written novel uplifting; it engenders the feeling that the North Koreans will ultimately free themselves from their repressive government because the burden of believing in it will become too great.

***The Accidental Pilgrim

 

Stephen Kitsakos

Author Stephen Kitsakos

By Stephen Kitsakos – Rose Strongin is a woman with a secret so deep even she doesn’t know what it is. Worse, it’s the kind of secret that’s contrary to her way of understanding the world, honed throughout her training and career as a research scientist. This secret involves something that couldn’t possibly happen in real life. Or did it?

In the mid-1970s, early in her career, Rose has the exciting opportunity to travel to Israel with her husband and daughters on a project near where the biblical town of Dalmanoutha is believed to have stood. (In this regard, Kitsakos’s fictional account mirrors real-life archaeological discoveries.) Dalmanoutha is the village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee where, the Bible has it, Jesus fed the multitudes with a few fishes and loaves of bread. When Rose first meets the magnetic director of the research project, Dr. Noah Chazon, an unexpected chemistry ignites between them.

On the day Rose and her family are to return home to Toronto, Rose disappears. Despite diligent searching by everyone involved in the project, Rose cannot be found for several hours, and the family misses its flight. Unaccountably, Rose says she cannot remember where she was or what she was doing. Her husband Simon, aware of Rose and Chazon’s mutual interest, suspects the worst, and in the ensuing years Chazon’s reappearances are a sore spot in the couple’s marriage.

Still, for Rose, the interlude on the beach remain a blank: “Time had stood still for her and all she could recall was walking down the long slate path . . . as if she had walked into a cloud and come out the other side, three hours later.” In her hand was a mysterious piece of wood.

This vagueness is uncharacteristic of Rose and, in itself, raises questions. But whatever happened, it saves the family, as the flight they would have taken crashes into the sea, and all aboard are lost. Was Rose’s disappearance a form of premonition? Rose is not the only person to have had such an experience in that place. And each such revelation deepens the mystery, as do the shards of Rose’s own experience that come back to her in brief flashes of recognition and understanding many years later.

Much of the novel is told in near-distant flashbacks, but it opens in the current day, in Israel, with Simon, his two daughters, and the son conceived the night the family unexpectedly missed their plane. They are gathered to fulfill Rose’s last wishes, including that her ashes be scattered on the Sea of Galilee at the place where she disappeared thirty years before. Through the memories these actions stir, the reader gains an understanding of Simon and Rose and their marriage, Rose’s relationship with Noah Chazon, and how three missing hours affected everything that followed. I had the chance to ask Stephen Kitsakos about the novel’s structure, and he said that, although he wrote the book in fragments, eventually, the family’s return trip to Israel with Rose’s ashes became the spine of the story, connecting all the parts and keeping it moving forward.

At its heart, the book contains a number of mysteries that can be interpreted in different ways—metaphorically, literally, or spiritually—which gives the reader much to think about and can make for a lively book group discussion! To me, the strong underlying message is about the enduring power of love, though Kitsakos put this thought much more elegantly in response to my question about message: “The greatest mystery of all is what connects us to our ancestors, ourselves, and each other,” he said.

Kitsakos is a theater writer and journalist and has written the librettos for three operas, including an adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. His talent at setting a dramatic scene and creating compelling characters is put to good use in this intriguing novel.
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The Books of Summer

book, House of Leaves, Danielewski

House of Leaves page (photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

The May Wired’s guide to summer fiction leads with two 880-page doorstops: one from my fave Neal Stephenson titled Seveneves (I’ve pre-ordered!), and the other from Mark Z. Danielewski. Danielewski’s is The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May, with a planned 26 more volumes to come, BTW. If Danielewski’s name is unfamiliar, you may recognize the title of his last convention-shattering tour de force, House of Leaves (my review). He may have done it again, suggests Jonathan Russell Clark in his Literary Hub article, “Did Mark Z. Danielewski Just Reinvent the Novel?”

Also out in May is Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, a thriller set in the near future when the water supplying Las Vegas and Phoenix runs out. “It’s just as apocalyptic as his first book (The Windup Girl, which won both Hugo and Nebula awards, among many others), more political, and though it didn’t seem possible, angrier,” says Wired reviewer Adam Rogers. “These days are coming,” thriller writer Lee Child says about the book, “and as always fiction explains them better than fact.” Bacigalupi views his books as thought experiments—by seeing where the world is headed, people can “make different decisions and vote for different politicians.” In other words, “Let’s not do this.”

In the same Wired issue, Caitlin Roper interviews Hollywood’s Damon Lindelof (Lost) and Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) about their new film, Tomorrowland starring George Clooney, and the omnipresence in entertainment media of a catastrophic future. Lindelof says, “I think one of the real reasons for all these dystopian movies, TV shows, and videogames is that it’s just easier to wreck things than it is to build something new.” Tomorrowland, he says, began with the notion of recapturing the “idea of an optimistic future, which has become completely and totally absent from the landscape.”

That’s certain true in fiction. In an NPR essay, Jason Heller says that ever since Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the dystopian literary trend has been unstoppable, if only because “the world feels more precariously perched on the lip of the abyss than ever.” Like Bacigalupi, Heller believes that “by imagining what it’s like to lose everything, we can value what we have.”

****Hold the Dark

arctic wolf

(photo: myri-_bonnie, Creative Commons license)

By William Giraldi, narrated by Richard Ferrone. This crime thriller set in the remote villages and tundra of Alaska lays bare different visions of civilization. The inhabitants of remote Keelut have their own ways of doing things—of dealing with birth, and death, and grief—and no matter how strong the forces of conventional culture are, in the end, the old ways win. In the process, the book “peels away the thin membrane that separates entertainment from art, and nature from civilization,” said reviewer Alan Cheuse in the Boston Globe.

Russell Core is a nature writer and an expert on wolves, with a famous book about them. When wolves take two, then three children from Keelut, the mother of the third child, a six-year-old boy named Bailey, asks him to come help her understand what is happening. Untethered from family and any part of life he finds meaningful, Core responds to her plea, and is drawn deeper and deeper into the lives, ways, and secrets of the remote village. The child’s mother, Medora Slone is married, but her husband Vernon has joined the military, fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, this nation’s “desert wars.” Do not assume this has made a regular American of him.

Yet Slone is described as a renegade, and Core wonders how this squares with life as a soldier. His best friend, an Alaska Native named Cheeon says Slone can make himself look like he is doing what he is supposed to, but will be doing what he wants to, nonetheless. Cheeon did not join the military for that reason. He hadn’t that gift.

When Slone returns to find his son dead and his wife missing, well, in the classic crime novel vernacular, “all hell breaks loose.” Hell, in this case, plays out during the year’s longest nights—18 hours of darkness—and over a tundra so vast “whole states could fit on its frozen breadth.” The weather is practically another character in this frozen terrain: “Like grief, cold is an absence that takes up space. Winter wants the soul and bores into the body to get it.” Before this book is through quite a few souls fall to the cold, the wolves, and the people.

Richard Ferrone’s narration perfectly fits the other-worldliness of the Alaska Natives and the care with which residents of the far north must operate in their unforgiving environment. Giraldi is the fiction editor of Boston University’s literary magazine Agni.