In Alexander Maksik’s new novel, “Shelter in Place,” a young man adrift in the Pacific Northwest recounts what happens after his mother committed a terrible crime. Maksik appears Sept. 27 at Ravenna Third Place Books.
Alexander Maksik pulls out all the literary stops in his third novel, “Shelter in Place” (Europa Editions, 392 pp., $18). An unreliable narrator with a mental illness addresses the reader directly. Short sentences and chapters build suspense. Dark images (tar, angry birds, shadowy trees) form in the narrator’s deteriorating mind and spread across the Pacific Northwest.
The plot is simple and has a superficial similarity to the thrillers currently dominating the best-seller lists. Joe March is a kid from Seattle, just graduated from college, doing nothing special in the Oregon coast town of Cannon Beach when he meets Tess, a bewitching beauty with an uncertain past. Their bubble of love is broken by a shocking event: Joe’s mother, Anne-Marie, sees a man beating his wife and children in a hardware store parking lot and kills the man, using a hammer. Anne-Marie is sentenced to life in prison; Joe’s father, then Joe and finally Tess gather in the fictional town of White Pine, Wash., to be near Anne-Marie. Life gets strange.
It’s an intriguing setup, especially when Maksik salts the mine with Joe’s bipolar-driven unreliability. His first sentence is a killer: “In the summer of 1991 my mother beat a man to death with a twenty-two ounce Estwing framing hammer and I fell in love with Tess Wolff.” Some foreshadowing about “the tar and the bird” follows, and Joe warns “I’m not going to tell you everything. You should know that from the start. I won’t answer all your questions. This is not every single thing. It is only one version. Please remember that.”
The author of “Shelter in Place” will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 27, at Ravenna Third Place Books, 6504 20th Ave. N.E., Seattle; free (206-525-2347 or thirdplacebooks.com/ravenna).
If that sounds like the setup for a new blockbuster — “The Girl on the Train” morphs into “The Mom with a Hammer” — Maksik has other, artier ideas. Joe talks about events from 20 years ago and what happened this morning, sometimes in the same paragraph, and repeats himself while addressing either his absent sister or anyone reading his words, or both. He interrupts his story to comment on it and to reassure his readers: “I’ll return to him. I will,” he says of a sympathetic character who’s been absent for a few dozen one-page chapters.
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Joe’s a sick puppy, one who traces his mother’s violent outburst to the “dull, cold pain” of madness within himself, “a blue-black bird, its talons piercing my lungs.” That’s nothing compared to what happens when Tess falls under Anne-Marie’s broken wing. In an interesting twist, Anne-Marie becomes a leader in prison and a heroine for abused women across the country who see her murderous act as one of courage and rebellion. Groups form to defend her and urge direct, unspecified action on her behalf. Tess gets down with it.
“Shelter in Place” is an absorbing, frustrating psychological study that goes deep into the forest but doesn’t do enough to distinguish one tree from another. The emotional insight is there but the characters remain sketchy, figures circling around Joe’s beautiful, twisted mind.