In the first sentence of Lisa Lutz’s novel “The Passenger,” 28-year-old Tanya Dubois tells us: “When I found my husband at the bottom of the stairs, I tried to resuscitate him before I ever considered disposing of the body.”
Once she’s satisfied that the man is dead, Tanya has a shot of his best bourbon and thinks hard about her next step. She assures us that she didn’t kill her husband — that he must have slipped and fallen down the stairs — but admits she doesn’t mourn his passing; among other sins, he snored, gambled and didn’t trim his toenails. Disposing of his body would be too difficult, she decides, but she won’t call police and report the death. Why? Because, she says, “they’d start looking at me real carefully and I didn’t like people looking at me.”
In other words, Tanya has secrets, many secrets, secrets the author will reveal slowly as the novel progresses. So she packs her bag, gases up her husband’s car and leaves Wisconsin in search of a new life, pausing briefly for a parting romp with the chiropractor who has been her lover.
Low on funds, Tanya drives to Nebraska, checks into a motel and calls a Mr. Oliver to demand that he send her a new identity and $5,000. He finally agrees but is so hostile that she fears he may instead send someone to kill her. We have no idea who Mr. Oliver is.
She drives to Austin, where she chances to meet a woman known as Blue (for her ice-blue eyes) whose history is as murky as her own. One night, as the two women leave a bar, two men with guns force them into a car and head out of town. Tanya, assuming these are Mr. Oliver’s killers, manages to twist the steering wheel, whereupon Blue grabs a gun and shoots both men dead. It’s time for Tanya to leave Texas, but she and the formidable Blue will meet again.
Thus begins Tanya’s odyssey across the United States. She’s often desperate to obtain new IDs when old ones are compromised. Sometimes she steals them from women who unwisely leave their purses unguarded. She often cuts and dyes her hair, and once she changes her looks by gorging on sweets until she gains 25 pounds. We are reminded that it’s all but impossible to exist in today’s United States without a driver’s license, a Social Security number and other forms of identification.
Tanya likes bars, but men she meets there endlessly hit on her and ask unwelcome questions. The only man she’s drawn to turns out to be a sheriff, which complicates their relationship. When she finds a job teaching in a private school in Wyoming, she loves the children, but a man from her past arrives to kill her. He pays for his mistake and she moves on.
Everywhere she goes, dangers await. In Upstate New York, needing shelter, Tanya breaks into vacant country homes — only to have their owners arrive unexpectedly. Two of them want to kill the intruder. If her adventures sometimes feel fanciful, they’re well told and exciting. The question is whether this intelligent, essentially moral woman can escape the disaster her life has become. She is, we come to think, more sinned against than sinning.
A series of email exchanges between Tanya and a man named Ryan gives hints of her past. Ryan loves her but she spurns his offers of help. They haven’t seen each other in years and they speak guardedly of lies, even deaths, back then. It appears that Tanya is struggling with problems that began amid the passions and confusions of high school. If she is to find salvation she must stop fleeing her past and confront it. Or would that path lead to prison?
Lutz is also the author of the popular Spellman Files, starring a quirky young private investigator from a dysfunctional family. With “The Passenger” she has re-introduced herself as a more serious — and intriguing — author of crime fiction.
Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
By Lisa Lutz
Simon & Schuster. 303 pp.