That passage into greater maturity powerfully alters his relationship with his parents, even as they scold him: “No more hunting down the attacker. No more clue gathering.” In the aftermath of the crime, Joe can’t understand why his father seems so methodical, so academic in his attention to the law, to precedents. And why can’t his mother just snap out of it and “come back to life”? For the first time, he sees that they need him in ways they’re not even aware of.
Beyond the rape and the investigation and any possible retribution, Joe’s sobering evaluation of his relationship with his parents is the most profound drama of the novel — “the shock of that first moment when we all realized we were old.” In some ways, I was reminded of Richard Ford’s “Canada,” another remarkable novel this season about a teenage boy who realizes his parents’ limitations.
But “The Round House” is not all wrenching and tragic, and it has a wider tonal range than “Canada.” Despite the horrific crime at the center of the story, Erdrich leavens the mood with some hilarious scenes involving Mooshum, an ancient horndog who never stops bragging about his sexual exploits (past and present). And Joe’s patter with his young friends is full of all the comic bluster and sweet naivete of adolescence.
Authors who write linked novels — even novels as loosely connected as Erdrich’s — pose a challenge for new readers: Do the books stand alone? Must one start at the beginning of the list? Erdrich’s most recent novel, the blistering “Shadow Tag,” was one of my favorites of 2010 and worked entirely on its own, though it wouldn’t give a novice a sense of the author’s luxurious interweaving of myth, legend and history.
With its single narrator and tightly focused plot, “The Round House” is more accessible than some of the earlier books in Erdrich’s North Dakota cycle, and older teens might respond to Joe and his struggles. But it’s no criticism of “The Round House” to warn that it would be enhanced by first reading at least “The Plague of Doves.”
Don’t let that discourage you from starting here, however, if you don’t know Erdrich’s work. Joe is one of her more charming narrators, and the story he tells transforms a sad, isolated crime into a revelation about how maturity alters our relationship with our parents, delivering us into new kinds of love and pain.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. Follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
On Oct. 10, Louise Erdrich will be at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Call 202-364-1919.