By Paul Jaskunas. Free Press. 240 pp. $23 Recent statistics suggest that a new work of fiction is published every 30 minutes in the United States. For crosspatch critics, who perceive a wasteland of paper and ink spreading out around them, this must be horrifying news. Yet in a world much given over to bad news and cheap entertainment, the appearance of a new work of the imagination every half-hour seems to me an optimistic sign of the health of the human heart and mind. Even so, with so many books, it is difficult for a first novel to grab a reader's attention. Paul Jaskunas's Hidden achieves this because he takes seriously literature's ability to allow us a magical transformation out of our own skin and into someone else's.
In this case, the invitation Jaskunas extends is to live in the world of (and in the body and mind of) Maggie Wilson, who had her head bashed in by somebody in an act of violence that nearly killed her. Someone meant Maggie certain harm, and her effort to identify that person is the drama that unfolds over the novel's course. The most obvious suspect was Maggie's husband, Nate Duke, a man who had already shown himself capable of violence toward his young wife. On the strength of Maggie's testimony, Nate was sent to prison. But a blow to the head is a disorienting thing, and when another man steps forward six years after the crime to confess his responsibility, Maggie must reckon with the possibility that she has been wrong about what happened.
After months of uneasy convalescence at her parents' house following the attack, Maggie decides to move back to the scene of the crime, the old house in New Harmony, Ind., that she and Nate shared in their short marriage. There, surrounded by court records and depositions and police reports and photographs, Maggie tries to reach the end of her memory's dark corridor.
"It's not a healthy life," she admits. "I know that. I'm not concerned. What I long for is clarity, and that doesn't come easily to one with a split-open skull."
There are no hours as sly as those that slip by while we're reading, and Hidden provides both the racing pulse pleasure of a thriller and the quieter deep waters of character-driven literary fiction. It is the story of a violent crime, but it is also about ordinary transgressions of ordinary people, the small crimes that ripple outward in a life like the concentric rings of a pebble thrown into still water. Truth, Maggie discovers, resides in murky territory. Nate has a bad temper and tends toward grandiosity; but Maggie has her flaws as well. She has an affair with a colleague at the newspaper where she works, and in general she is young and inexperienced. Jaskunas understands that a horror story acquires its menace not only from spilled blood and handprints on the wallpaper, but also from its subtle and perilous altering of the emotional landscape. "He wasn't a bad man in the beginning," Maggie says of Nate. "I don't believe I am telling a story in which I do not understand the situation completely. His hands were gentle, his intentions good. I had faith in the way we began."
Sometimes Jaskunas swamps the story in his eagerness to deliver the urgency of Maggie's quest. But his instincts are laudable; he wants Maggie's claustrophobic world to quiver on the page, as restless and real and threatening as the dark night that surrounds her, alone in her empty house with her frightful memories.
The German utopians who settled in New Harmony, expecting the end of the world in fire and brimstone, built a labyrinth in the midst of the Indiana corn fields, a maze of hedges where the good Christian could ply his way toward God. It is here, in the center of this labyrinth, that Maggie sometimes comes to sit.
"There is no noise but for the crickets in the trees, and as darkness gathers, June bugs float from the rings of hedges all around you and glow in the humid air. I go inside the brick hut and sit down on a bench. The blue paint on the walls peels off in shreds, and in the rafters is a hornet's nest. I've never seen a hornet emerge from it, but always it seems the gray, papery tumor may explode with black wings and buzzing above me. Still, I take my time here and try to remember how it was before. How I used to feel about myself on a lovely July night like this."
The center of the world, Jaskunas seems to suggest, is in the imagination, in the accretion of vivid detail of which both memory -- and fiction, of course -- are constructed. "A story is a powerful thing," Maggie acknowledges, and she speaks for writers and readers everywhere. "All it takes is the telling." *
Carrie Brown's most recent books are the novel "Confinement" and a story collection, "The House on Belle Isle." She lives in Virginia.