The most inventive and entertaining novel to date from “a master of the dark arts” (Kelly Link)
A modest house in upstate New York. One in the morning. Three people—a couple and their child—hurry out the door, but it’s too late for them. As the virtuosic and terrifying opening scene of Broken River unfolds, a spectral presence seems to be watching with cold and mysterious interest. Soon the house lies abandoned, and years later a new family moves in.
Karl, Eleanor, and their daughter, Irina, arrive from New York City in the wake of Karl’s infidelity to start anew. Karl tries to stabilize his flailing art career. Eleanor, a successful commercial novelist, eagerly pivots in a new creative direction. Meanwhile, twelve-year-old Irina becomes obsessed with the brutal murders that occurred in the house years earlier. And, secretly, so does her mother. As the ensemble cast grows to include Louis, a hapless salesman in a carpet warehouse who is haunted by his past, and Sam, a young woman newly reunited with her jailbird brother, the seemingly unrelated crime that opened the story becomes ominously relevant.
Hovering over all this activity looms a gradually awakening narrative consciousness that watches these characters lie to themselves and each other, unleashing forces that none of them could have anticipated and that put them in mortal danger. Broken River is a cinematic, darkly comic, and sui generis psychological thriller that could only have been written by J. Robert Lennon.
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By J. Robert Lennon
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2017 J. Robert Lennon
All rights reserved.
It is a few minutes past one in the morning when the front door slams shut. Anyone remaining in the house — but there is no one — would be able to hear, through the closed door, the footsteps of three people hurrying across the porch and down the stairs. There are voices, too — a man's and a woman's, and a child's. The adults are quiet, or they are trying to be quiet, but their voices betray strong emotion: fear, in the case of the woman; and in the case of the man, impatience and frustration, which could easily be interpreted as a response to his own fear. The child's voice is plaintive and confused, as though she (a girl, most likely, of around five) has been awoken from sleep and hurried out of the house without explanation.
The state of the now-empty house would suggest that this is precisely what has happened. Many of the lights have been left on. In the kitchen, dinner dishes are still soaking under sudsy water in the sink, and a drawer and a cabinet have been left open and disordered, as though objects have been removed from them in haste. Three of the four mismatched wooden chairs that surround a small table — its laminated plastic surface scratched and gouged and peeling up at one corner — are pushed neatly underneath it; the fourth is lying on its side upon a linoleum floor that is equally scratched and gouged. A few coins lie on the tabletop, along with a half-empty pack of cigarettes, one of which burns in a white plastic ashtray.
Anyone standing in the kitchen right now would hear, through the screened, half-open window over the sink, footsteps on gravel outside. The three people — the man, woman, and child — have evidently reached a driveway or parking area adjacent to the porch. The man and woman are arguing, and it is possible to determine from their tone that they are trying to decide upon something quickly and don't agree about the proper course of action. 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.
If an observer in the house were to climb the stairs that lead up from the kitchen, he or she would reach a narrow hallway interrupted by three doorways. Two of them are open right now, and light spills through them onto the frayed hall carpet. The first of the doors is on the left, and behind it lies a small bedroom: clearly the child's. The bed is unmade; open drawers interrupt the face of a painted bureau. Some clothes appear to have been hastily grabbed from these drawers; a few articles have fallen on the floor. One drawer has tumbled out of the bureau entirely and lies facedown on the pink-painted wide-plank floor, on a pile of small socks and underpants. Also visible on the floor, between the upturned drawer and the bed, is a stuffed toy frog. Perhaps this is the item that the crying child is demanding.
If so, the child's parents do not sound enthusiastic about the possibility of going back to retrieve it. Instead, their footsteps in the gravel outside have stopped, and the jingle of keys can be heard in the still night air. It is even possible to see them now, from the child's room: if an observer here were to turn off the overhead light and move to the open window, he or she could make out the family standing around a station wagon parked at an awkward angle on a weedy gravel drive. The car is a Volvo, from the mid-eighties, perhaps, with rust eating away at the edges of the doors and in the wheel wells. It is hard to tell the color by starlight (tonight is a clear night), but gray or light blue would be a good bet. The man has gotten the driver's-side door open and has dived into the car, and the woman is shouting at him to unlock the other doors. The man curses, and there is a moment of relative quiet wherein an attentive observer could discern the sound of the other locks popping open. The child is wailing now — she is clearly terrified by this strange nocturnal excursion and by the unprecedented desperation of her parents. The woman flings the rear passenger-side door open and pushes the child inside. She is in there for several long seconds, attempting to reassure the child that all will be well, in a tone of voice that indicates the precise opposite. Perhaps she is attempting to fasten the child's seat belt. The man is shouting at her to just get in, fucking get in with her and close the door. In the end the woman obeys, and before the door is even shut, the engine has been started and the car begins to execute a sloppy three-point turn. At last the car is pointed away from the house; it is thrown into gear, and the tires spin, sending a shower of gravel out behind it.
If the observer in the house were to leave the child's room and continue down the hallway to the next open door, the one on the right, he or she would find a larger, similarly disrupted bedroom. It would seem to belong to the man and the woman. The bed is mussed, with the sheets pushed down to its foot, but only one side appears to have been slept in. A collection of items on the small table at this bedside — a paperback romance, a snarled elastic band with several long hairs tangled in it, and a single earring (its twin is lying on the floor, in the shadow of the bed) — make it appear likely that it is the woman who lay here alone tonight. Perhaps, then, it was the man who stayed up smoking at the kitchen table.
The third room will have to remain unexamined for now, because a new sound is demanding our observer's attention. It is emanating from the now-darkened child's bedroom: or, rather, from its open window. The sound is that of a car — the mid-eighties Volvo station wagon, it would seem — scraping through brush and crashing against the trunk of a tree. There is a shout — the woman's. Something, some obstruction or unexpected event, has caused the man to steer the car off the drive and into the woods. As the observer turns and approaches the room for a second time, light sweeps through it, and out the door and into the hall: headlights: not of the now-disabled Volvo but of a new vehicle that has come up the drive toward the house. Car doors open with a rusted groan: the Volvo's. Another car's doors can be heard to shut, cleanly, quietly: this car is newer, denser, larger.
Heavy footsteps break twigs and crush leaves. There are shouts — men issuing commands, to one another, to the fleeing family. Someone, doubtless the woman from the house, is screaming — at first in surprise, then in alarm, and then in outright terror. Then, for a few moments, the woods are quiet. The chaotic action that immediately followed the accident has ceased. The woman, for now, is no longer screaming. Only the man can be heard; he pants and grunts; he weakly protests. Now the woman begins to cry. Deep male voices ask sharp questions, issue threats. The man and woman attempt to respond, to comply, but their efforts are evidently ineffective. Flesh can be heard to come into violent contact with flesh. The man groans. The woman yelps, begs.
It is unlikely that any genuinely feeling person could bear to hear the sounds that come next, not for more than a few seconds. And so let us assume that our observer is not a real person but merely the idea of an observer: an invisible presence without corporeal substance, incapable of engaging emotionally with the sounds that reach the house. These sounds are to last for nearly fifteen minutes. They are the sounds of suffering: the man and woman are enduring physical and emotional agony. It is unclear whether information is being extracted from them; or if they are being punished for something they have done, or are supposed to have done; or if these acts are merely sadistic. In any event, they are acts of physically violent, sexual, and psychological torture, and the man and woman react the way any human animal does when the last of its defenses have been stripped away and it is facing the inevitability of its own death. It is not necessary to describe those reactions here, only that they come to an end following two short, sharp noises: gunshots.
There is silence once again. Then the male voices return, quieter now, more efficient. Three of them: it is not necessary to discern the differences between them. The three men are working together. They effect movement in the brush; they grunt, as though lifting something heavy. A quiet metallic snick implies the opening of a car trunk or rear door, and a thump indicates that a heavy object has been placed roughly inside. This sound is accompanied by the clanking of wood and metal, as though some tools have been displaced by the heavy object: shovels, perhaps. This process — the lifting, conveyance, and depositing of something heavy — is repeated, and followed a moment later by the opening and closing of the newer car's doors. The glare from its headlights, which during the chaos of the past half hour has remained fixed upon the walls of the child's bedroom and of the hall outside it, once again begins to move, and the sound of the car's engine recedes into the distance. And then one of the Volvo's doors opens and closes, and its engine starts up. It seems that, with some effort, its new driver has managed to extract the station wagon from the brush and navigate it back onto the gravel drive. Soon it, too, is gone, in the same direction as the new car, albeit with an altered set of wheel and engine noises: scrapings and knockings and a rhythmic clanking, as of a fan blade bent off true. The Volvo is not right. Surely it is barely roadworthy. Our observer might conclude that the car, like its former occupants just minutes before, was nearing the end of its functional life. In fact, it is likely that it will never be seen or heard again.
For some time, the only sounds audible from the house are of the wind in the trees — it seems as though a storm may be coming — and the creaking of the front door on its hinges. The door was left open by the fleeing man and woman. The wind has come into the house, and it has begun to move other things — some papers left out on the kitchen counter, a bit of onion skin on the linoleum behind the pantry door. The lit cigarette in the ashtray burns faster, and the wind pushes its smoke away, at an acute angle, toward the farther recesses of the house. The cigarette is propped in one of the three heat-discolored notches cut equidistantly along the ashtray's edge; in twenty minutes the line dividing the intact cigarette and the ash has reached the notch, and the remaining unconsumed cigarette tips back and tumbles silently onto the table's surface.
Now, in a gust, doors slam shut throughout the house. The front door is the last, and loudest. Rain — big drops of rain — begin to fall outside, intermittently at first, then in a steady if irregular rhythm, and then in a torrent. After three minutes of this, rapid footsteps sound on the porch, and the front door opens only wide enough to admit a lone person before it closes again behind her.
It is the child. She's crying — sobbing wildly, choking on her sobs — and mucus drips from her nose and over her lips. She locks the door behind her and calls out to her parents. Of course there is no answer. The child does not appear surprised. She knows that something unprecedented, terrible, and irreversible has happened and that her parents are not likely to answer. At the same time, she believes the opposite: that her parents are nearby and will soon come to her aid. This is, after all, the only arrangement she knows. For a few minutes more the child stands in the vestibule, continuing to cry, her arms hanging at her sides, her eyes darting wildly, surveying the interior of the house, which our observer might guess she suddenly sees as alien, subtly and permanently changed, as though in a dream. At last the crying stops, and the child stands panting and rubbing her face. She takes a few steps into the kitchen. It appears to frighten her. She takes note of the fallen chair and the few scraps of blown paper lying beside it. After a time, she moves a few feet to her left, slowly, her back sliding along the kitchen wall. Then she lowers herself to the floor and sits there, her legs splayed out like a doll's.
The child is wearing a thick cotton nightgown printed with pictures of suns, rain clouds, birds, and umbrellas. She moves a hand up to the neckline and begins to twist the fabric around her pointer finger. She then puts this knot of cloth into her mouth and chews on it, champing with her bicuspids like a dog with a bone. Her eyes stare straight ahead, unseeing, and the fabric is soon dark with saliva. She falls asleep, and the nightgown-wrapped finger drops from her open mouth. But the finger remains tangled in the wet fabric, and her arm hangs there, stretching out the nightgown at the neck. The child snores. The rain continues to fall.
* * *
As dawn breaks, the child wakes on the kitchen floor, briefly appears frightened and confused, then gets up and hurries to the stairs. From down in the kitchen, our observer hears the sounds of a toilet being used. Footsteps can be heard, first across tile, then carpet, then wood. Bedsprings creak. The child can be heard to speak a single word, "Froggy," uttered in evident relief.
The child appears at the top of the stairs. Her nightgown is dry now but wrinkled and distended around the neck, and she is clutching the stuffed frog. She gazes down into the kitchen, her eyes passing over and through our observer, and she calls out to each of her parents. There is no answer.
After a minute, the child comes down the stairs, slowly and warily. But when she reaches the kitchen she appears to gain confidence — she walks quickly now to the pantry and emerges with a box of cereal. She places it on the table, then heads to the refrigerator for milk, and to a drawer for a spoon. Once these items have joined the cereal box, the child rights the fallen chair and drags it over to the cabinets. She climbs onto it and retrieves a china bowl from a shelf. These actions are deft; the child is clearly accustomed to them. The bowl secured, the child now moves to the table, prepares her meal, and eats it.
Once the child has put away the breakfast ingredients and carefully balanced the bowl and spoon in the sink, on top of the previous night's dishes, she walks briskly out of the room. For a few minutes she is audible moving through the recesses of the first floor. Not long after, her footsteps sound in the upstairs hall — there must be another staircase at the rear of the house — and roam through each room. The third door, the one closed the night before, under which no light shone, now opens, then quickly closes. The child calls out to both parents again, this time in evident, if theatrical, frustration and impatience, as though the previous night's fear has been transformed into irritation at their inconvenient absence.
The child's footsteps can now be heard entering her own bedroom again. Drawers are opened and closed. Muttered words are spoken: she is talking to herself, or perhaps to her frog. When our observer sees her again, she has come down the stairs and is passing through the kitchen on the way to the front door. She is dressed in a pair of bell-bottom jeans and a white tee shirt covered with small pink hearts, and her face wears an expression of determination and mild but growing anger. What else can we learn from her short trip across the floor? The child's eyes are large and deep, and the pale and faintly translucent skin beneath them is purpled by crying and by the disruption of her sleep. In the set of her shoulders, the tightness at the corners of her mouth, and the complex expressiveness of her brow — she is scowling in apparent concentration — we may detect evidence of a troubled and agile mind, one that, at this moment, is attempting to contextualize, explain, and reshape the events of the night before: to give them a form that she will be prepared, if not to grapple with, then at least to tidy up and get out of the way.
But we are out of time. The child has opened the door and is marching through it, into the bright and muggy morning. She throws it closed behind her, but with insufficient force, so that it fails to latch and falls partway open again. This enables us to hear the child calling out for her parents, in a tone both plaintive and scolding, the way she might address her stuffed frog when she has invented a wrong for it to have done. For several minutes the child's footsteps sound through the rain-drenched woods, and her chastening voice grows more distant. And then the house is silent again.
Excerpted from Broken River by J. Robert Lennon. Copyright © 2017 J. Robert Lennon. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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