Author: John Burnham Schwartz

Title: Northwest Corner

Publisher: Random House

It was a tragic accident: a young boy hit by a car and killed by a driver who panicked and left the scene. Eventually the truth came out and the driver—Dwight Arno, husband and father—went to prison, leaving behind two shattered families to pick up the pieces.

Only they didn't, really. The boy's parents isolate themselves in their grief, leaving their small daughter to fend for herself in barren, emotional wasteland where her brother's death "is unmentionable history." Dwight's (now ex-) wife and son cut their losses and go on with their lives, sort of, until young Sam is himself involved in an out-of-control incident of his own.

Dwight hasn't seen his son in years. He's out of prison, living a careful ex-convict's life: managing a sporting goods store, keeping his head down, staying out of trouble. The last thing he expects is to find Sam on his doorstep. It's the beginning of a beginning, the first small step on the road to redemption and possibly even love.

Schwartz's prose has a poetic, literary feel to it. The point of view changes from chapter to chapter, providing a multi-faceted look at each main character. The noise in the characters' heads is so loud it's a wonder they can hear each other speak (and sometimes they can't) but that is a realistic depiction of the walking wounded who populate these pages. It's also a bit confusing, especially at first. Despite the identifying names that begin each chapter it takes careful attention to figure out just how each new person relates to the story.

Regardless, even when a character's relevance is in doubt their voice immediately demands attention. These people, living their lives of quiet desperation, are as real as the neighbors down the street. In Schwartz's hands, their words spill out sometimes in long, complicated sentences that seem to come off the page faster and faster in time with the hysteria lurking just under the surface. It's masterful writing, fraught with emotion, and sometimes exhausting to read.

Northwest Corner feels like an "important" American novel, the kind that will be studied in English Lit classrooms before many years go by. It should lead to many interesting group discussions about themes of abandonment, reconciliation, forgiveness, anger, and more. Though beautifully written, it is not an easy book to read. Still, it may be a book people are still reading decades, even generations, from now.

A few cautions: The language is occasionally coarse, several sexual situations are described in some detail though not at length, and there are scenes of graphic violence.

*This review first published 8/2/2011