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3 really good August novels

This month's fiction roundup features three middle-aged men in crisis. Thankfully, there's not a convertible or comb-over in the bunch.

By Yvonne Zipp

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Northwest Corner, by John Burnham Schwartz, Random House, 304 pp.

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1. Northwest Corner, by John Burnham Schwartz

Dwight Arno hasn't seen his son in 12 years, when the 22-year-old shows up on his doorstep.

Readers of John Burnham Schwartz's "Reservation Road," will remember that the last time they were together was the night before Dwight turned himself in "all of a sudden and four months too late," for running over one of Sam's classmates one night on their way back from a Red Sox game.

Dwight, who served 2-1/2 years in prison for Josh Learner's death and is now living in California and working as the manager of a sporting goods store, has dreamed of a reunion with his son. But not, it must be said, like this. Sam, a senior in college and a talented baseball player, took a bat to a man during a bar fight, and has fled the scene (rather like his father) without knowing whether he's killed someone.

As he sits on the couch, not too near, since he doesn't want to spook Sam, "an anxious penny taste on my tongue. My hands aching with the need to touch him,” Dwight understands why the boy ran to him and not his mother. “Why, after all the years of locking me out, he’s finally come to my doorstep. This feeling of dirt. Unable to wash it off because now it’s inside of him and untouchable.”

Whereas "Reservation Road" toggled back and forth between the Arno and Learner families, Northwest Corner jumps between Dwight; Sam; Sam's mother, Ruth, a cancer survivor who has divorced her second husband; Emma Learner, Josh's sister, who hooked up with Sam after a party; and Penny Jacobs, the professor Dwight is seeing, who thinks she's dating a blissfully simple, uncomplicated man. Schwartz, it must be said, doesn't seem to be terribly invested in Penny, and a reader tends to forget about her in between her chapters. And Sam is pretty much a sullen blank.

But in Dwight, Schwartz has created a character who has acquired enough hard-won personal honesty that it feels like almost a moral imperative to root for him.

Memory and the past are recurrent themes throughout, with one character comparing long-ago happy memories to a worn-out sheet, and Ruth regarding her memory as “not so much the proverbial sieve as an increasingly rusty grater, shredding little shards and slivers from the original whole.”

“Northwest Corner” is a compelling tale of a family – not just broken, but seemingly pulverized by violence – finding their way back together again.

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