Book review

The Reddick family might be cursed. Eighteen years ago, one of the Reddick boys, Dell Jr., was murdered by a Vietnam vet not quite right in the head. They never did find the body, which didn’t help the rest of the Reddicks move on, especially the mother. She could usually be found brooding, sucking on a Salem and sipping from a tumbler of Cutty Sark scotch, but she goes missing the day of Dell Jr.’s corpseless funeral, 18 years after he disappeared. As tragic memories resurface in a small town in western Nebraska, what ensues is a series of mysterious fires, petty robberies and a comedy of errors that draws the Reddick family into conflict with one another and with the law.

Chris Harding Thornton’s debut novel, “Pickard County Atlas” unfolds through an orderly roulette of perspectives — Harley, a divorced deputy sheriff  haunted by personal demons; Rick, a do-gooder blind to his own faults; and Rick’s wife, Pam, who is flighty and discontented by motherhood. Initially, all three characters and perspectives skate by each other, exchanging glances but not quite interacting, until the final chapters, when they all converge in a cinematic standoff. Along the way, each succumbs to some kind of madness — speed, sleeplessness, plotting an escape — which inflects the narration with verbal tics and which reaches a fevered pitch in the final pages. Of the three, Rick’s fall from grace is almost unbelievably swift, as if someone flipped a switch, in what is otherwise a well-paced, slow-burn psychological crime thriller.

The two other Reddick brothers — Paul and Rick — have a family business restoring and flipping live-in trailers even though they cannot keep their own houses in order. Paul, who lives with their mother, is unbothered by her disappearance and has a checkered history with local authorities. Self-serious Rick lives in a trailer with his daughter and wife, who is worn down by an impoverished existence and aches for a home with a real foundation.

Thornton leverages the constraints of small-town life to marvelous effect when ratcheting up dramatic tension. Despite being set in the Great Plains, this is a highly claustrophobic tale where unaired grievances and the smallness of small-town life sit on your chest and don’t let up. “For being dead almost 20 years, that kid had a way of being everywhere, all the time,” Pam thinks to herself during a late night visit with Harley. In a place where everybody knows everybody and boredom leads to foolishness, relationships can quickly spiral into a quagmire, especially when families are divided and when trust is routinely betrayed.

Thornton herself is a seventh-generation Nebraskan, and this intimate familiarity shines through in vivid descriptions of hardscrabble life out in western Nebraska. “The place was a cusp,” Thornton writes, “and it’d once drawn people accustomed to life on cusps. Farm kids, immigrants, children of freed slaves.” Today it is rapidly declining. “Hordes left with the drought and dust and then again when the combines rolled in, when crop rows snaked long and longer to make the same ends meet.” Jobs are scarce and only open up when someone croaks. Those who do stick around have a built-in toughness. Speaking of one of the no-nonsense Reddick women, Harley the sheriff notes, “they were as native to Pickard County and the surrounding hills and valley as leadplant. If they didn’t know you, you were suspect, and if they did, they were very slow to warm.”

Thornton balances these lyrical descriptions of place and mood with snappy dialogue that effectively summons small-town shorthand — gruff greetings, hushed speculation, dry quips — which, alongside a steamy affair, grease the narrative and make for a quick read.

This thriller manages to grip readers in a bloodless fashion. Less a mystery than a psychological drama, Thornton presents readers with a convincing character study charting how quickly self-destructive tendencies can veer into full-on self-annihilation, and the many paths one can take to get there.

Chris Harding Thornton, MCD, 288 pp., $27