Nick Arvin is a totally nice, approachable, funny guy, which I know because we met him. For reasons perhaps undisclosable by the University of Denver, I have one of 98 paper-bound copies of his novel, The Reconstructionist, sitting pretty on my bookshelf. It’s got Arvin’s hectic-looking signature on it and it’s been there on my shelf too many months to mention. And the fact is, it’s a book that sticks with you just as many months as that, and longer, and does so for reasons that stick out and make sure to matter. It’s an odd novel, but one that, like so many other choices I’ve commended HarperCollins for in the past, was well worth going out on a limb for, even when the limb might be a little shaky. Now, of course, post-publication, that branch is looking pretty solid: why NOT write a novel whose every page reads like the most dramatic/romantic/tumultuous episodes in the “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” repertoire? Except instead of the likes of Catherine and Grissom, you’re presented with people that are a hell of a lot more like you — which can be a lot more impacting and provocative and revealing.
Ellis Barstow finds himself nearing the middle of his life and investigating fatal traffic accidents for a living with the help of his mentor, Boggs. The various investigation scenes (each with names like Pig Accident One) are evidence of Arvin’s desire to present a fully-researched story arc, and it’s clear how much fun he has doing it, despite (or perhaps because of) the painstaking level of detail. By the end of those reconstruction sequences, you’ll think yourself just as cut out for this job.
Things get way more than complicated when an affair is brought into the narrative mix, one that I wasn’t too jazzed on myself, due to the stilted nature of its inception. That steamy plot point is propped up on the same conceit that a whole lot of this novel is — the fact that Ellis’ own half-brother, Christopher, was killed in a traffic accident when Ellis was a child. As a reader, that initially made me do a grade-A eye-roll and voice an, “oooohkay…” As in, I see where you’re going with this, Arvin. It’s retribution, this reconstructing; it’s giving Ellis a chance to restore balance to his universe, et cetera, et cetera.
But it’s not that at all, really. In many ways, Arvin legitimizes these conceits, each of which his book essentially must advance upon. Ellis, for example, doesn’t really have any of those insufferable survivor-type monologues you might hear from a character who’s suffered terrible loss. And the coincidence of being confronted with his past isn’t as deus ex machina as it could be, because it is admitted so often by the characters themselves that what they have stumbled upon is an extraordinary turn of events — or, as Boggs likes to see it, exactly the turn of events that Ellis’ life was meant to have.
That’s where the beauty is in these pages: Boggs’ declarations. He’s a character that can wax philosophical on the nature of his profession while champing on a stale cigar. His conviction that there are no “true accidents” (and accidents are instead only as “accidental” as anything else in our lives that we deem a conscious choice) make his every move worth watching. Because then, in any investigation of what caused a car crash, we’re seeing a man squint carefully not at a horrible tragedy, but exactly what was meant to be. Arvin is bold to voice through his character that kind of conjecture, and even bolder not to let us know who’s right.
The Reconstructionist may have its moments of meandering — the literary equivalent of that endless stretch of interstate — but it’s one of those uncommon books that can prove its pace is an enactment. The decisions we make are the ones we have to live with, and life, if we choose it, is long; if the impotence of the present happens to lag, that’s your cross to bear, just as it is Ellis’s or Boggs’s. I’m curious to see what reaction is garnered by this release, because its reception will tell us a lot about ourselves.