The fictional present of William Brewer’s impressive debut novel, “The Red Arrow,” lasts one day, split across two train rides: from Rome to Modena and back again. The book’s unnamed narrator is taking a break from his honeymoon to track down the Physicist (also unnamed, but based on Carlo Rovelli, famous for his slim introductory volumes like “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics”), for whom he has been ghostwriting a memoir. The Physicist has stopped responding to e-mails just as they were about to cover his big “realization.”
The narrator took this job because he failed to produce a novel for which a publisher paid him a lavish advance. When the time came to turn in the book, he had neither pages nor the cash. It’d all been spent. As he turned in pages of the Physicist’s memoir, the publisher reduced his debt. The narrator would only make money on the work if the memoir earned out its advance and started paying royalties.
As the narrator travels back and forth, he looks back on his life. He describes his own process, beginning with a quote from the Physicist: “‘Time is not a line with two equal directions: it is an arrow with different extremities,’ And as I read it with my mind’s eye and repeat it to myself, I feel the present shift, then soften, then bloom open like a flower with very long petals, each curling back to a point that got me here.”
Through this process, not quite linearly, readers learn about the narrator’s childhood in West Virginia, his failed career as a painter, how he met his wife, and his relationship with The Mist, a manifestation of his severe depression.
The narrator’s efforts to survive and treat his illness make up much of the book’s emotional core. Before treatment, he’s miserable, his negative thoughts powerful and upsetting. When the publisher’s lawyers are coming after him for the money they’re owed, he thinks: “It was almost rewarding: finally I was seeing people treat me as the disappointing virus I knew myself to be.” Brewer skillfully articulate the man’s deep wells of pain and resentment in quick swings.
We know early on in the book that the narrator has undergone treatment for his depression; what’s more, he tells us, “the journey worked, the treatment worked.” But we don’t know what it is, at least at first; “I won’t describe the treatment yet, because if I do so now, I’ll lose you,” the narrator coyly relates. Once the treatment is revealed — guided therapy using psychedelics — this comes into focus as an unconvincing and overblown claim. Everyone in the book is supportive of his method and efforts.
The dissonance between how he abstractly portrays the treatment and how it’s handled is a peculiar distraction. Brewer centers much of the narrator’s experience on the books he reads and the thin line between reading or hearing about something and experiencing it yourself.
While trying and failing to write the novel, the narrator becomes obsessed with “Dispatches” by Michael Herr, a supposedly nonfiction book about Herr’s time covering the Vietnam War for Esquire. The book took several years to finish because Herr had a nervous breakdown, and he later admitted that parts of the book were invented. In “The Red Arrow,” the narrator’s unrelenting attention to the book is an excuse for not doing his own work and jeopardizes his marriage.
While in Italy, the narrator reads Geoff Dyer’s “Out of Sheer Rage,” about Dyer’s attempt to write a book on D.H. Lawrence. He finds himself reading Dyer’s description of a bar and its bartender while he is at that very same bar, watching that same bartender. The narrator ultimately finds this comforting: It “freed me to experience that nothing I was experiencing or noticing or even thinking was original.”
These coincidences occur again and again. The narrator meets them with joy and wonder and so the reader does, too. Brewer’s precision in writing these sequences makes them feel more like fate than authorial contrivance. Brewer makes this work with matter of fact and direct prose, indulging only occasionally in an imagistic flourish to remind readers his narrator is a writer.
“The Red Arrow” is more about enjoying the mysterious way these events unfold than understanding why things have happened the way they have. This contrasts sometimes uncomfortably with the life and aims of the Physicist, who seeks, as scientists tend to do, to ask the right questions and find the right answers. Brewer, in the end, ties some ends that would have been better left loose.
When “The Red Arrow” wraps up, its handling is more interesting than it is satisfying. But, as the book’s structure implies, sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.
THE RED ARROW
By William Brewer
Knopf, 272 pages, $27
Bradley Babendir is a fiction writer and critic.