‘The Man from Primrose Lane,’ by James Renner

March 18, 2012

I’ve rarely finished a book with more sharply divided feelings than the ones inspired by James Renner’s “The Man From Primrose Lane.” This first novel is ambitious and innovative — and often maddening. Some readers will find it a fascinating puzzle; others will throw up their hands. If you like your fiction tidy and predictable, look elsewhere. If you don’t mind being challenged, surprised and sometimes confused, take a stroll down Primrose Lane. At the very least, you won’t be bored.

The story starts with the murder of the title character, a recluse who lived alone on Primrose Lane in West Akron, Ohio. We then meet David Neff, a troubled writer who lives nearby. Like his Ohio-based creator, Neff has written a successful book of nonfiction about a serial killer, but after its success, Neff’s wife killed herself, whereupon he stopped writing and devoted himself to raising his young son. We fear for Neff’s sanity, both because of his wife’s death and because the voice of the serial killer still rages in his mind.

Neff’s editor urges him to consider writing about the murder on Primrose Lane, and the more he investigates that crime, the more coincidences emerge. No one knows just who the recluse was, but he left evidence that he knew things about Neff and his late wife, Elizabeth, that he couldn’t possibly have known. We learn that Elizabeth had a twin sister who was abducted and apparently murdered when she was 10. Neff begins an affair with a young woman who looks like his late wife and who was herself nearly abducted at the age of 10. To our dismay, he is accused of having murdered the wife that we know — or think we know — he loved. In a further complication, he suspects that in his book he may have attributed some of the murders to the wrong serial killer.

Oh yes, about 110 pages along, in a flashback to 1986, a local policeman, investigating strange sounds outside town one night, confronts a red-eyed, frog-like alien that is equipped with a weapon that emits “brilliant sparks of blue-white light,” which has emerged from an egg-shaped spaceship. The patient reader will in time learn what in the world this apparition has to do with Neff and his problems.

All this, if increasingly bizarre, is well written. Renner jumps back and forth in time and raises questions he doesn’t immediately answer, but the quality of his writing will keep many readers pushing ahead despite their puzzlement. Neff’s courtship of Elizabeth is nicely handled, as is his love for his son, and we suffer with Neff when he goes off his meds.


“The Man from Primrose Lane: A Novel” by James Renner (Sarah Crichton/FSG)

Eventually, we realize that Renner’s serial-killer saga has morphed into a time-travel story. At first, I cheered the author’s boldness. The publisher calls the book “mind-bending” and “genre-twisting,” and what’s wrong with that? Still, the question is how such concepts are executed.

Late in the book, the narrator tells us that “when an idea’s time has come, it will be recognized by several people at once.” Thus, he adds, “two authors sometimes come out with similar books in the same season.” Renner seems to be assuring us that it’s pure coincidence that his time-travel novel follows so closely Stephen King’s somewhat similar time-travel novel, “11/22/63.” There’s no reason to think otherwise — time-travel stories are not exactly rare. What’s interesting is the difference in the way the two writers use the device.

King is entirely straightforward. We know from the get-go that his hero has found a way back to 1963 and will try to stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In Renner’s book, too, someone hopes to stop past crimes. That’s fine, but soon his narrative becomes bewildering. Too often, we simply don’t know who’s doing what to whom. Yet when he involves Neff in a future, dystopian America, it’s original and scary. I can imagine young readers making “The Man from Primrose Lane” a cult favorite, but it may be too demanding for the mainstream audience.

I respect Renner for doing what he wanted to do, or perhaps felt compelled to do, but I hope that next time he’ll discipline his free-wheeling imagination and give us a more accessible, more satisfying story. Mind-bending doesn’t have to be mind-boggling.

Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.

THE MAN FROM PRIMROSE LANE

By James Renner

Sarah Crichton/FSG

365 pp. $26

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