A literary thriller shows people as their own worst enemies

Broken River, the latest J. Robert Lennon novel.
Cover of "Broken River," the latest J. Robert Lennon novel published by Graywolf Press.
Courtesy Graywolf Press

J. Robert Lennon's new novel, "Broken River," is an elegant study of a group of people who keep grabbing the wrong end of the stick. It's a thriller that is expected to be a hot summer read this year.

"Broken River" begins with a small family: a mother, a father and a small child. They're panicking, quickly leaving a house in rural New York state in dead of night. The adults stand in the driveway, arguing.

An especially perceptive listener might describe the woman's voice as accusatory and the man's as defensive, and might be willing to imagine a scenario in which the man is to blame for this crisis, and in which the woman is registering her displeasure about the circumstances that led to it. The child meanwhile has begun to cry and is demanding something that has been left behind.

Minutes later the adults are dead, and the child has run off into the woods. Two killers ransack the house, seeking something they don't find. They fade into the night before the police arrive.

It wasn't a story that Lennon planned. One day he challenged himself to write a riff about a house that had been empty for 10 years. There are a lot of such former homes where he lives in Ithaca, N.Y.

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"I just started doing this as an exercise, and didn't know what I was doing," he said. "And put these people in the house, and pretty soon they were being murdered. And so it turned into a psychological thriller, I guess. Once I got to the end of the chapter in which some new people show up to buy the house, I had to figure out what they were doing there." And that's where the fun begins in this darkly humorous tale. It's another small family: Eleanor, a blocked novelist desperately trying to write her next best-seller, and Karl, her philandering husband, whose indiscretions have forced the move out of the city, ostensibly so he can focus on his sculpting. Finally there is Irina, their 12-year-old pistol of a daughter, who is also writing her novel.

"They all try to restart their lives in this house," Lennon said, "and they sort of awake the ghosts of the past."

 J. Robert Lennon said he didn’t start out to write a literary thriller.
J. Robert Lennon said he didn't start out to write a literary thriller. He began writing an exercise about an abandoned house, and found himself describing a brutal double murder.
Courtesy Graywolf Press

It turns out they all have secrets that they are keeping from each other, even Irina. She is the one anonymously posting speculative information about the killings in the house on "Cybersleuths." It's an online bulletin board dedicated to investigating unsolved crimes.

Eleanor worries she may be spent as a writer. And then there is Karl, whom Eleanor has placed on marital probation. He cannot restrain himself, and begins scheming.

Lennon said Karl was fun to write. "By the end, I really quite liked the guy, " Lennon admitted. "I mean, he's kind of charming and delightful to be around, but he just spews destruction in every direction. Also, he doesn't sculpt!" he said with a laugh.

Pretty much all the characters in "Broken River" end up lying, not only to each other but to themselves.

"I am really interested in the idea that we narrativize our emotions and our lives in a way that flatters some sense we have of ourselves but that is not necessarily an accurate or useful depiction of the way we actually live," Lennon said.

Lennon will discuss "Broken River" with author Benjamin Percy at a reading in Butler's Cafe at the St. Paul Athletic Club at 7 p.m. Tuesday. It's a homecoming, of sorts, as Lennon visits his longtime publisher. He said he's benefited from the editorial help he's received over the six books he's done with Twin Cities-based Graywolf Press.

"And they have been as enthusiastic about my work when it has been peculiar and not very good-selling as they are now, when I have written a book that people seem excited about," he said. "So I have nothing but good things to say about Graywolf."

Lennon said he enjoyed writing "Broken River" more than anything he's done in recent memory. Which tells him that maybe he should have fun more often.