Murder, cancer, child molestation, heroin addiction . . .
The blights afflicting the characters in Dan Chaon’s new novel, “Ill Will,” would be enough to bring anyone to their knees. Yet these folks have a persistent sense of quest and query that helps them defy their dismal odds.
Chaon first made his name as a short-story writer whose fiction sprang from the prairies and sand hills of western Nebraska where he was raised. In his collections, “Fitting Ends” and “Among the Missing” (a National Book Award finalist), he was closely tuned to the way opportunity and fate shape ordinary existence, and the manner in which lost possibilities play a ghostly game of tag with reality.
“Ill Will,” by contrast, is best described as Rust Belt Gothic. Set mostly in and around Cleveland, where Chaon lives, the book focuses on lurid extremes of family dysfunction. Traumas pile up so heavily on its players from such an early age that they have no chance at leading unremarkable lives.
As the book jumps back and forth in time between the late 1970s and the 2010s, it circles the truths behind a long-ago multiple homicide and a present-day potential serial killer on the loose.
Psychologist Dustin Tillman is linked to both cases. In 1983, when he was 13, his parents, aunt, and uncle were murdered during a boozy family gathering in Nebraska. Testimony provided by young Dusty and his cousin Kate helped convict his abusive adopted brother Russell of the killings. As the novel opens, Russell has been released from prison after DNA evidence exonerates him. The news stuns Dustin, who is already reeling from his wife Jill’s recent cancer diagnosis.
At the same time Aqil Ozorowski, a new patient on medical leave from the Cleveland Police Department, turns up in Dustin’s office, ostensibly to seek help in quitting smoking. But he is much more concerned about a string of drownings, seen as accidents by police, that he believes are murders. The victims are college boys. After Jill dies, a disoriented Dustin begins to buy into Aqil’s ever-more-baroque serial-killer theories and starts helping him investigate.
Chaon comes at the story from several angles. One key narrator is Dustin’s 18-year-old son Aaron, succumbing to heroin addiction but still alert enough to realize his gullible father is losing it. Dustin, with past traumas and present-day menaces closing in on him, has moments when he thinks he is “cursed.” The whole novel, which opens with an epigraph from Jean de La Fontaine (“We often meet our destiny on the road we take to avoid it”), can be read as a study in fatalism.
Chaon has other things on his mind too, including “the misinformation effect, how our recall of episodic memories becomes less accurate because of post-event information.” Dustin himself admits that he’s “never been certain what was being recalled and what was being imagined.”
With some of its twists and turns, “Ill Will” even seems to have anticipated our current world of fake news and “alternative facts.” As Aqil notes, “[O]nce people begin to believe in something, it starts to become more true.”
The novel also taps into the toxic legacies of American class divisions. Dustin’s late wife, a lawyer, believed his “white trash” background had consequences for him that went even deeper than he realized.
“You know what you learn when you study the legal system?” she once asked him. “Poor people pass down damage the way rich people pass down an inheritance.”
Chaon’s powers of description are impressive, whether he’s visualizing “the freckled crud left behind by melted snow” or evoking a moment when young Aaron realizes that what he sees on his father’s face isn’t “a human smile” but “protective coloration.” Chaon is persuasive, too, on Dustin’s blind spots when it comes to his son’s burgeoning drug problem.
Although “Ill Will” covers grim territory, it’s laced with sick humor. “Are you boys shooting up?” Aaron’s best friend’s mother asks. “I’ve noticed that I’m missing a lot of spoons.”
A few of Chaon’s tactics — his occasional use of double or triple columns of narrative, and his odd word spacing, both within paragraphs and vertically on the page — don’t always work. His knack for leaving sentences tellingly unfinished and thoughts menacingly incomplete, however, is perfect.
If you’re up for being caught in a seamy heartland underbelly of fear, superstition, and paranoia, with side excursions through urban legend and recovered-memory hysteria, “Ill Will” is your book. But it may not be for everyone.
By Dan Chaon
Ballantine, 458 pp., $28Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.