When Dustin Tillman was 13 years old, his parents and his aunt and uncle were murdered. At the trial, Dustin and his cousin, Kate, testified against his adopted brother, Rusty. He claimed that Rusty was into Satanic rituals—it was the 80s, and Satanic panic was a thing. Plus, Rusty’s own parents had died mysteriously, so it kind of added up, even if there was no physical evidence. Now, 30 years later, Rusty is being released from prison, thanks to DNA evidence.
That’s just one major thread in this novel by Dan Chaon. Dustin is now a psychologist, and one of his patients has become obsessed with the idea that there’s a serial killer kidnapping young college men and drowning them a few days later. A former cop, Aqil has been studying what were presumed to be freak, accidental deaths, usually due to drunkeness, and found what appears to be a pattern. He wants Dustin to help him get at the truth. Dustin, grieving the death of his wife and lacking anything else to do, ends up going along with it.
Meanwhile, Dustin’s college-age son, Aaron, is caught in his own spiral of addiction. And he has started getting phone calls from Rusty, the uncle he never knew existed.
Chaon moves through multiple timelines and multiple voices to tell this complex story. There are several mysteries to unfold, all of them revolving around the human tendency to create stories out of the information we have, even if the story doesn’t make any sense. That story may then become our truth, whether it conforms to the facts or not. As far as Dustin is concerned, Rusty is a murderer. As the book unfolds, we learn why he believes that, and we’re given enough information to sort out what aspects of the story he’s told himself are likely to be true, and which aren’t.
As I’m writing, I realize that I’m making this book sound more straightforward than it is. All of these elements are common to psychological suspense. But Chaon is going for something weirder than that. There are sections where voices overlap, each one appearing in a separate column on the page. Who’s speaking? Are there three characters here, or just one? There are clues that are never explained, characters with dual (or more) identities, one character that I suspected for a while wasn’t even real. It’s that kind of book.
Chaon also does this weird thing with fragments and spacing that served no useful purpose, other than making the (obvious) point that memories are fragmentary. Most of the time, it just looked like mistakes.
And the end just leaves you with the questions hanging. I think it’s possible to work out what happened, and I think that the solution is pretty straightforward, although I’m still puzzled about one last text message that appears. But is that because of my own human tendency to impose a narrative on disparate clues? Has Chaon put me in the same trap as his characters?