BEFORE YOU KNOW KINDNESS
By Chris Bohjalian
Shaye Areheart, 448 pp. $25
During the fallout from the Jonathan Franzen/Oprah Winfrey flap in 2001, when the queen of daytime talk withdrew "The Corrections" from her Book Club after Franzen said he was "uncomfortable" about being selected, Chris Bohjalian (author of the 1998 Oprah pick "Midwives") told USA Today that he was "appalled" by Franzen.
" 'The Corrections' is a great book," he said, "but I was still furious that he could presume his work was more interesting, more difficult, more challenging than the work of [Oprah picks] Toni Morrison or Joyce Carol Oates or Andre Dubus or even me."
Bohjalian's list went part of the way toward proving his point: Not all Oprah-anointed writers are the same. Some pack cultural history into the lives of their characters, in cadenced prose suffused with insight and mystery. Others limit their focus to the regional and domestic spheres, caring less for language and ideas than for emotional connection with the reader. But what all the Oprah books seem to share -- even the classics that have replaced her contemporary selections -- are the fundamental components of old-fashioned tragedy, with its inevitable march toward catharsis.
Bohjalian has structured several of his novels around domestic tragedies. In "Past the Bleachers," a couple copes with losing an 8-year-old son to leukemia; in "Midwives" a midwife is put on trial after one of her patients dies during an emergency Caesarean; "The Buffalo Soldier" begins with the drowning of twin 9-year-old girls in a flood. And in his most recent novel, "Before You Know Kindness," Bohjalian builds his story around the accidental shooting of an animal rights activist.
The victim is Spencer McCullough, communications director of the Federation for Animal Liberation. So caught up in his work that he forces his wife and daughter into a strict vegan lifestyle that they both resent, he can think or talk about little else. "All too often," Bohjalian writes, "he seemed more interested in animals than in humans. Than in his own family. Moreover, sometimes he seemed interested in animals in the abstract -- as issues and causes -- rather than as individual creatures with whom he might feel a special bond."
On vacation at his in-laws' New Hampshire summer home, Spencer becomes obsessed with growing vegetables in the garden, then conflicted when the local deer keep helping themselves to his arugula and kohlrabi. Like an animal, he urinates around the boundary, marking his territory. Meanwhile, his brother-in-law, John Seton, has secretly taken up hunting and keeps a rifle in the trunk of his Volvo with half a notion to use it on one of these intrusive deer. Trouble is, John has neglected to discharge a live bullet that has become stuck in the chamber.
You can see where Bohjalian is going with these intersecting plot lines, but in a series of cleverly ironic twists, he puts the gun into the hands of Spencer's 12-year-old daughter, Charlotte, who's just been experimenting with a little alcohol and marijuana. When the bullet plunges into Spencer, only inches from his heart, we're left to wonder not only whether he will survive but whether the shooting was entirely accidental. And how can the family get over such an event?
Soon after Spencer's shooting, about a third of the way in, the novel becomes an irresistible read. Moving from quiet domestic drama to legal thriller, Bohjalian drops us into the perspectives not only of the seven principal members of the McCullough and Seton families but also of lawyers, activists, key witnesses, even, at one moment toward the end, of a crow flying through the woods.
The deft plotting promises that though these characters will suffer, in the end they'll be redeemed. The novel's title, borrowed from the poem "Kindness" by Naomi Shihab Nye, is one of many such promises: "Before you know what kindness really is / you must lose things, / feel the future dissolve in a moment / like salt in a weakened broth."
These characters will lose plenty, and their hard exteriors will soften. But truly first-rate fiction, the kind Bohjalian referenced in USA Today, requires more than arcs of change and catharsis. There's also poetry, an attention to language and song, and a refusal to write clumsy sentences. Bohjalian unleashes too many breathless passages, riddled with parentheses, that are too long to quote here. And awkward prose like the following bogs the novel down:
"Patrick was not quite five months old, and any day now John was sure that his cherubic baby boy was going to dazzle him by overcoming his turtlelike inability to roll over and start spinning like a dervish on a ski slope. It could happen this very second, if only because the child might grow tired of feeling the Dijon mustard that in the last moment he had let loose into his diaper with the power and sound of a fire hose."
"Before You Know Kindness" puts suspense before language, and although the plot might be unified, the ideas -- about animal rights and gun control -- at times feel forced into the narrative. Still, there's no denying Bohjalian's compassion for his characters or his skill at simply telling a good story.