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Guilt Trip

RESERVATION ROAD.\o7 By John Burnham Schwartz (Alfred A. Knopf: 304 pp., $24)\f7

September 20, 1998|BRET LOTT | Bret Lott is the author of eight books, most recently "The Hunt Club," a novel, and "Fathers, Sons and Brothers," a memoir

"Reservation Road" is the story of a grief we'd rather not contemplate: the death of a child. And though stories like this don't always make for the most appealing reads precisely because this is a possibility every parent must secret away to make it through a day, what John Burnham Schwartz has given us is a dark and irresistible miracle: a heartbreaking thriller.

On their way home from a Sunday afternoon picnic and evening outdoor concert in Canaan, Conn., a father and his family take a shortcut, Reservation Road. So begins the story of Ethan and Grace Learner, parents of Josh, 10, killed in a hit-and-run outside the dark and lonely gas station where they stopped to let Josh's younger sister, Emma, go to the bathroom.

The novel, charting the unthinkable months that pass after the accident and the profound frustration of not knowing who killed Josh, is told in chapters that alternate three points of view: Ethan, whose first-person account ushers us into the razor-edged realm of self-inflicted guilt for not having kept his son from the side of the road while he went inside the station; Grace, whose chapters record in third person the dreamlike near-catatonia of a mother whose son has died just out of her line of sight--her only solace the growing realization that her daughter needs her to come back from the murky edge of sanity.

And, in a brilliant move, Schwartz has daringly chosen to give us the first-person account of Dwight Arno, the man behind the wheel when Josh is struck down, and his own downward spiral into the abyss of true guilt. He, too, was on his way home that summer night, his own 10-year-old son, Sam, asleep on the seat beside him.

What makes this difficult story so compelling are the quality of the writing and the turn of the story: a perfect match of character and plot. Schwartz's sentences are as elegant and effortless as we'll find at this post-Cheever end of the century, while the suspense is excruciatingly beautiful. Will Grace and Ethan's separate grief ever align to let them move on with their lives together? Will the lines of the Learners' and Arno's lives triangulate to execute the justice that must be found?

"Reservation Road" is a story that matters to the heart and mind and soul, driving us to see more deeply into the dark recesses of our own hearts to examine possibilities we would rather leave alone: loss, resignation and a heart broken into so many pieces we may lose ourselves and those we have left. Yet Schwartz's generous heart and clear eye make certain there is room for redemption, despite the depth of grief he limns so beautifully.

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