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Written by John Burnham SchwartzAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by John Burnham Schwartz



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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 304 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42746-5
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Synopsis

A New York Times Notable Book of the Year

"A dark and irresistible miracle: a heartbreaking thriller."--Los Angeles Times

"Haunting. . . . A powerful and affecting novel."--The New York Times

A tragic accident sets in motion a cycle of violence and retribution in John Burnham Schwartz's riveting novel Reservation Road. Two haunted men and their families are engulfed by the emotions surrounding an unexpected and horrendous death. Ethan, a respected professor of literature at a small New England college, is wracked by an obsession with revenge that threatens to tear his family apart. Dwight, a man at once fleeing his crime and hoping to get caught, wrestles with overwhelming guilt and his sense of obligation to his son. As these two men's lives unravel, Reservation Road moves to its startling conclusion. This is an astonishing tale of love and loss, rage and redemption, that is as suspenseful as it is emotionally compelling.

"Thrums with suspense and moral ambiguity. . . . This is one of those rare--very rare--novels that you don't so much read as inhabit and that makes everyday life seem altogether mysterious." --Entertainment Weekly

"A triumph . . . character-driven as it is, it reads like a thriller, swift and complete."--The New York Times Book Review

Excerpt

Ethan

I want to tell this right. On a beautiful summer's day we picnicked in a field as an orchestra played under a yellow tent.
The clouds began to gather in the blue sky around five o'clock. Handel was finished and Beethoven was still to come, the Ninth with full chorus, and there were couples strolling across the lush green field and two teenage boys tossing a Frisbee back and forth, the white disc chased by a barking black dog. And then Emma stood up and said she wanted to go home; she was eight years old and didn't much care for Beethoven. Grace suggested a walk instead, and Emma grudgingly accepted, and mother and daughter went off hand in hand, leaving Josh and me alone.

Room was being made for the chorus under the tent. They stood on the grass, in evening clothes, talking or limbering up their voices. Snatches of notes, bits of German, came floating over to us. And for perhaps the second or third time that day, I explained to my son that the final chorus of the Ninth Symphony was in fact Schiller's "Ode to Joy."

Josh merely nodded. He was a thin, private boy of ten, with dark, curly hair like mine. Sometimes he was a mystery to me. He'd been studying the violin seriously since his seventh birthday and was already well acquainted with Beethoven. Countless times he'd sat with me in my study listening to a scratchy recording of the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus performing the Ninth Symphony, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing soprano.

Now he reached into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out a flat, putty-colored stone. Staring off into the distance, he began polishing it with his thumb. I followed his gaze and there was the black dog leaping into the air after the Frisbee and the Frisbee floating just beyond the dog's reach. I asked him what he had there, in his hand.

He looked up at me--surprised, as if he'd thought he was alone.

"That stone."

"Arrowhead," he replied, looking away again.

"Can I see it?"

He shrugged, holding out his hand, palm up. I took the arrowhead from him, turning it over in my own hand. It was a fine specimen, the point still defined, the surface at once jagged and smooth. "It's a nice one," I said. "Where'd you get it?"

"Found it."

"You should take it into science class when school starts. You'd be a big hit with that thing."

He shrugged.

"When I was your age, I--"

"Can I have it back now?"

I felt the blood rise in my face. I had a powerful urge to throw the arrowhead across the field and into the trees, but I was his father and did no such thing. "Sure," I said. I gave it back to him. And then we sat without speaking for some minutes, until Grace and Emma returned from their walk, and the four of us were settled peacefully again on our blanket.

"Find anything on your travels?" I inquired.

"A really fat lady," Emma said.

"Emma," Grace said.

"She was."

"Shh," said Josh, "it's starting."

The tent had fallen still, voices and instruments silenced. The conductor in his black tails tapped the air with his baton, and there was a single cough from an oboist in the third row. And then the explosion of the first bars, like the sky opening. I looked at Josh. He'd shifted to his knees to get a better view of the violinists in the first row. His back had gone perfectly straight and his lips were moving.

I will never forget the final movement. How the voices entered forcefully from the first, resonant yet still earthbound, to be joined by a multitude of others. How the sound grew from inside the yellow tent until it became a god, and the conductor's body seemed to beat to its calling. And finally, how my son, alone among us all, got to his feet and remained there, standing and silent, long after the music had ended.


The sun was low in the sky when we started the drive back. It had fallen into a cloud behind the verdant trees and the light emanating from there was seashell pink. In the backseat of the station wagon, Emma had fallen asleep with her thumb in her mouth and Josh was staring out the window, humming.

The next half-hour or so was a disappearance; the light just withdrew, shrinking back behind the curtain. Roadside trees turned ever softer--until, all at once, it seemed, they were granite. I switched on the headlights. Heading south on Route 7, we crossed the state line into Canaan, bumped over the train tracks that ran there, passed the Connecticut State Police barracks on our right and then on our left my dentist, Dr. Zinser, and Tommy's Diner. A quarter of a mile further on, I turned east onto Reservation Road, which was the locals' shortcut between Route 7 and our town of Wyndham Falls.

We were twenty minutes from home. It was dark now. Reservation Road was narrow and unlit and flanked throughout by woods on both sides. Above the trees the sky sat like an enormous bruise. We were rounding a turn when suddenly I saw a stirring in the air at the outer edge of the headlight beams, like a small cloud of upward-falling rain. The car punched into it and instantly the windshield was splattered with dead insects. I braked hard but kept the car rolling.

"What was that?" said Grace.

"Bugs," Josh said excitedly. "A swarm."

I corrected him. "Mayflies."

"It's not May any more," he said.

I switched on the wipers, but they succeeded only in streaking the glass with dead insects. When I tried for wiper fluid, I found there wasn't any. The wipers were squeaking against the glass and I turned them off. I was irritable; the concert seemed long ago. "Goddamnit."

In a sweet, just-awake voice Emma said, "Don't curse, Dad."

"I could've sworn you were asleep," I said.

" 'Damn' isn't a curse," said Josh.

"Thank you, Josh." I tried to find his face in the rearview mirror, but it was angled up for driving at night and all I could see was the smoke-black roof above his head. For some reason the incident with the mayflies had unsettled me, as if I'd been grazed by a hand in the dark.

Grace touched my arm. "Okay?"

I nodded, relaxing a little at her touch.

Then Emma said, "I have to go to the bathroom."

Grace turned and looked at her. "We're almost home."

"How long?"

"Twenty minutes, tops," I said.

"I can't hold it."

Grace sighed. "Yes, you can."

"I can't."

"She's being a baby," said Josh.

"I am not!"

"Josh," Grace said, "that's enough." Then to me: "Ethan, let's just stop."

"Absolutely not," I said. "Anyway, stop where?"

"There's that little gas station just up ahead, isn't there?"

Yes, there was, just ahead. And, I thought, the windshield was dirty with mayflies and we were out of wiper fluid. Perhaps we could buy some there.


Tod's Gas and Auto Body sat on the far side of a deep curve in the road, a break in the trees that might have felt like an oasis if it hadn't felt like a junkyard. The floodlight meant to illuminate the two old-fashioned pumps was broken, and the red neon sign that Tod's father had installed during headier days had been reduced by attrition to the first three letters, leaving a pitiful air of unfulfilled expectations. Half a wrecked car lay abandoned to the right of the low, flat-roofed building. It was a dark and uninviting place to be at night. The only indications of life were the buzzing three letters and a single lighted window next to the garage area, through which we could see, as we pulled in off the road, a young man sitting on a stool reading a magazine.

All four of us got out of the car; we left the doors open as if running for our lives. I got a rag from the glove box and began cleaning the windshield, while Grace took Emma inside. The door was glass, and small bells trilled when they opened it. I stopped what I was doing to watch them. Framed against the gloaming outside, the interior of the office shone stage-bright. And I saw the incongruous beauty of my wife and daughter, their two blond heads set in my mind against Josh's and mine, our coloring so different from theirs. I saw my wife speaking and the young man--dressed in jeans and an untucked plaid shirt--handing over the key to the bathroom, and there was something shy in his manner, though it was all theater to me, the room lit just so. And then Grace and Emma went out, the bells trilling, and they walked around the side of the building and out of my sight.

"Dad."

I turned. It was Josh, behind me, standing in the shadows near the road. Wearing a navy Windbreaker, unfaded blue jeans, and black sneakers, he was almost invisible except for his face, which was colored a faint neon red from the surviving letters on top of the garage. I had no idea how he'd come to be standing so close to the road.

"Move away from the road, Josh."

Josh looked at the ground and stuffed his hands in his pockets; it was clear that I'd let him down yet again, had, at some fundamental level, failed to respect his sense of himself. My face grew warm. "Hey," I said with false lightness. I extended a hand out into the air for no reason, a professorial affectation. I missed the feeling of the concert, sitting in the field with my son and listening to music.

"I'm not a baby, Dad," he said to the ground.

"Of course you're not," I said. "You're my son. And I'm just being your father the best way I know how. Forgive me?"

He was silent, looking at his feet. When he finally looked up again, I almost smiled with guilty relief. "What about the bugs?" he asked.

"Bugs?" Then I remembered. "Ah, the mayflies," I said declaratively, as though I were not here with my son but at the college teaching The Novel Since the Second World War. A new literary movement, perhaps. Just then I felt certain I was a fool. "We're out of wiper fluid. Why don't we go see if they have any?"

He hesitated, then shook his head.

I wanted to warn him to stay clear of the road, but I'd learned my lesson. "Hold the fort," I told him instead, and walked toward the lighted window, where the young man was again reading his magazine.

At the door to the building, I turned to check on my son. His back was to me. He was standing where I'd left him, staring across the dark curve of road. He seemed someplace else, as though he were still back at the concert. And I wondered if it was music playing in his head, notes like shooting stars.

The small bells trilled when I opened the door. The young man looked up from his reading but didn't stir from the stool. He was younger than I'd thought, with lingering acne and an attempt at a goatee. He had shuffled his feet and gone shy in the presence of my lovely wife, but before me his eyes betrayed a quick hard judgment followed by withdrawal; his remove was daunting. Perhaps he had me pegged for a rich weekender. He couldn't have guessed that I was worse than that, an academic. I wasn't rich, but my life was secure. That had always been its fundamental premise.

He said he wasn't sure he had any wiper fluid left, he'd have to check. He went through a door into the adjoining garage and turned on the light. In the middle of the grease-stained floor a car was raised on cement blocks, the engine sitting beneath it like a fallen heart. The odors of oil and gas were overpowering, and suddenly I felt the onset of a headache. I wanted to be home, reading a book, with a drink in my hand.

The young man reappeared carrying a gallon jug of blue wiper fluid. I handed him the money and took the jug. The weight of it surprised me; I didn't feel strong. The bells trilled, and I started back to the car with my head down, studying my left knee, which was inexplicably sore, musing on my tennis game and my body and my age.

I want to tell this right. I was thirty-eight years old. I had spent my entire adult life reading meanings into other people's stories, finding the figure in the carpet, the order in things. God in the details and no place else.

The car came from nowhere. No, it came from the left, racing around the bend in the road. The tires screamed and I looked up. The car was dark blue or green or black. Only one of the headlights worked. It broke from the trees like an apparition. And my son was standing in the dark road. My son's head was down as if he were looking for something. I shouted his name and his head jerked up, and then he saw the light coming at him. And in that light as it climbed him from the feet up, his eyes grew wide and his mouth dropped open but made no sound. The right front of the car struck him dead in the chest. It sounded like ice cracking. His body flew thirty feet.

* * *

Grace

The gas station appeared up ahead as they came out of the turn. And without warning the words were ringing inside her, signaling a sudden change of heart: Not this, not here. The place dilapidated, decrepit, abandoned, dark; the sign partially blown out; a car wrecked like a ship and left to rot among the weeds. All wrong, not at all what she'd ordered. But Ethan was already braking, pulling over; it was already happening. To try to change his mind now would be to admit to the same old fear. He'd complain that it was time, finally, just to let it go. Yes, of course. But how? Not so easy. All my life, she thought. The car slowed still more and then, distinctly, it was the tires she heard, tread by tread over the road, pebbles and sticks, slower and slower, the car listing to the right, while she berated herself, castigated herself, and thought: This is ridiculous. And was eight years old again.


The grass had been watered that morning; the feel of it cool and still wet between her bare toes. She could hear them by the pool, behind her as she went into the house: Daddy laughing loudly, like a happy horse, at something one of the guests had said. In the kitchen Gloria was standing at the counter slicing tomatoes for lunch. She held up the pitcher with both hands, and Gloria, smiling down at her, filled it with iced tea from another pitcher, and then she went back outside. The pitcher was heavy and made her arms hurt. She stared at it hard as she walked with small quick steps back across the lawn, trying not to spill; but the more she stared, the more she seemed to spill. The bright sun made her blink a lot, and the grass came up again, cool and still wet, between her toes.

She never knew how she dropped the pitcher; it just tumbled onto the lawn, landed upside down, and before all the iced tea had disappeared into the grass, she was already crying. And then a loud crash near the pool made her look. Her first thought was that Mother and Daddy had dropped something, too, and for a moment she felt relief so strong it was almost like joy. But then, looking over, she witnessed a strange, frightening scene: Daddy was lying on his back on the ground, and one of the guests was pounding him on the chest. And Mother, who was always so polite, was screaming for God to help her. . . .


Ethan turned off the engine, the doors opened: she was getting out, they were all getting out, she was taking Emma's hand, leading her off toward the little lighted office, trying hard, with a soldier's discipline, to focus her attention on anything but the awful gasping image lingering in her mind or the cracked, weedy pavement under her feet--the sound of the crickets singing across the road, all around, the music of any summer's night; that would do. Anything. Anything but this fear that had entered her life so long ago and yet still clung to her memory like cobwebs in an attic. Opening the door to the office, she was startled by the jingling of little bells. Thinking, Why bother to do that, with the bells, in a place like this? She wanted to go home now. Let's just pee and get out of here. A young man in a plaid shirt--beard, sort of, pimples, clear blue eyes--blushing and looking down at his feet as he handed her the bathroom key, attached to a four-by-three-inch rectangle of plywood to deter thieves and loiterers; his cologne home-grown, tangy, his attentions to her physical person welcome right then, as far as they went. I've had enough of my mind for one day.

She took the key and, leading Emma by the hand, walked back out into the warm, dark, pungent evening, the little bells jingling behind her like a broken song.

Ethan was cleaning the windshield with a rag, Josh standing a few paces off, bored, hanging out, both his mood and his clothes somber, evening-colored. And this: standing there he seemed hauntingly a spirit, a shadow, not a boy. She made herself turn away.

Enough. It was time. Around to the left with Emma, a kind of blind alley there. The light bulb out. She could see it stuck on the side of the building, useless, and beneath it a large metal Dumpster. Creepy place, all right; she had to smile to herself when she felt Emma's hand slide into her own. Past a couple of pulled-apart wooden crates and a mangled hubcap stood the bathroom door: unisex, apparently. She opened it with the key and, pulse surging, reached in a trembling hand and flipped on the light.

They stood there, peering in, trying to breathe through their mouths.

"It's gross," said Emma.

"It's a gas station, Emma."

Emma turned her head away, refusing even to look. "It's still gross."

"Would you like me to come in with you?"

"I can hold it."

"We stopped just so you could go."

"Mom, I know, but . . ."

"I'll come in with you, if you like."

"Okay."

She didn't want to go in with her; the bathroom stank to high heaven. But she'd offered. She couldn't afford, in her own eyes
or anyone else's, to be less adventurous than her eight-year-old; there were limits to everything. She pushed the door open wider with her foot and stepped inside. Emma followed reluctantly; suppressing a shudder, Grace toed the door closed. There was no stall--Emma stood in front of the naked toilet, crinkling her nose and looking as if she might gag any second.

"Can't we keep the door open?"

"No, Em. We can't."

"Why not?"

"Because it's not a good idea. Now don't talk, okay? Pee. I want to get out of here just as much as you do."

Emma unzipped her jeans, pulled them and her white underwear down to her knees, and stuck her bottom out over the toilet seat, making sure to keep several inches between her skin and any hard surface--at her height, a feat of willful gymnastics. Standing by the sink, Grace glanced at herself in the streaked mirror, then away: crow's-feet around the eyes, she saw, already, and her blond hair looking limp and dulled; she did not know what the young man in the office had gotten so worked up about; she did not care. She was tired of feeling death everywhere, this private, lifelong battle against a fragility that only she seemed to feel; tired of lugging around her bag of pet psychological tricks to make everything seem safe, when nothing really was. She wanted to go home now and take a hot bath.

The sound came. Finally Emma was peeing, eyes fixed, oddly as an adult's might have been, on the wall in fierce concentration. Grace found herself both surprised and moved by the faint evidence of muscle quivering along the outside of the thin bare thighs; by the tan line that must have developed only yesterday. It had been weeks, perhaps months, she realized, since she'd been in the bathroom with Emma. It was just the sort of motherly chore that when the children were very young she used to despair of ever being free of, and now here she was missing it. And the hand holding: one shouldn't have to be frightened to death to have such things in one's life, she thought. She dreaded, simply dreaded, Emma being thirteen.



Dwight

There's the truth in there somewhere; there's the beginning. I took my ten-year-old son to Fenway to see the Sox play the Yankees, Clemens dueling Key. We drove two and a half hours to get there. I'd gotten box seats, and Sam spent most of the game standing with his chin just above the railing, looking down over third base, his hands clenched into fists. It felt, for a while, like a perfect day.

But the game didn't end when it was supposed to. The pitchers dueled and nobody won. It went into extra innings. Sam's fists clenched tighter and I started looking at my watch. His mother was expecting him back by seven; his mother, who was my ex-wife. It was five, then five-thirty, and I could feel trouble waiting for me there, the way you can feel rain before it happens. I could almost hear Ruth's foot angrily beating time on the front porch that I'd built myself, in Bow Mills, where she still lived, two and a half hours away.

The game nearly ended in the bottom of the thirteenth, but the Boston base runner was thrown out at the plate. I couldn't believe it. Now I wonder if there wasn't a kind of pattern to it all, or something like that. Things lined up just for me to knock them down.

At five minutes to six, the Sox finally clinched it with a grand slam. Sam said it was the best game he'd ever seen. Afterwards, the hands that had been fists for hours were turned loose, and as we made our way out of the stadium to the jammed parking lot, one of them found its way into mine. It took him a minute to realize what he'd done and take back his hand. I acted as if I didn't know anything about it--didn't know what I'd had, didn't know what I'd lost. We got in the car and inched our way out to the Mass Pike.

The sun was still in sight, angled low through Sam's window and reflecting off his sand-colored hair. For some reason the color of the light then made me think about Buzzards Bay, where he and Ruth and I had spent a long weekend once when he was five, just before the accident. The memory came and went, no place for it to stick. And I drove as fast as the traffic would allow, talking baseball with my son.

I could tell he was tired. It had been a big day. Eventually I stopped talking, to give him a chance to sleep. Sam yawned a couple of times and grew quiet. The prospect of his dropping off then seemed like a good thing to me. I saw it as a kind of savings plan, a way to insure that he'd remember our day together fondly. As if a nap would make time stop on a dime for him, and the day would be encapsulated, wrapped like a gift, worth enough to hold on to till next Sunday, when I'd get to try again.

I turned on the headlights around eight o'clock, just as we were leaving the pike. The tolltaker told me my right headlight wasn't working. He mentioned also that it was against the law to drive with a broken headlight. Something about his tone irked me. Pocketing my change, I told him in a friendly way that I was a lawyer and no doubt knew the law better than he did, and was on my way directly to get it fixed. I didn't say anything to him about my ex-wife. It was none of his business. The headlight could wait, but Ruth Wheldon, formerly Ruth Arno, could not. As it was, I'd be lucky to get Sam back by nine o'clock, two hours late. I'd be lucky if Ruth didn't already have a cop or two waiting on the porch with her (the porch I'd built with my own two hands), all of them keeping time with their feet. I thought about calling her from a pay phone somewhere, but that would have just seemed weak. I lit a cigarette and drove faster.


There'd been a time when seeing my son had nothing to do with the rights of law. It's nowhere in the history books--the trouble-free times never are. Ruth and I were still married. The three of us were a family. Sam was five when all of that came to an end.

A lot of people said afterwards that I used to beat him. That was a lie, and Ruth knew it was a lie, but she didn't say so. She let people think it. The fact is I'd never laid a punishing hand on my son until the night I nearly killed him.

He was in bed asleep when I came home from work. I was with a hotshot firm in Hartford then, doing wills and trusts and the like, working hard and getting home late. A career going upward, that's what it was called. I went into his room and kissed him in the dark. I sat a moment there on the edge of his bed, part hoping he'd wake up and talk to me. But he was out like a light. All his days were full at that age, I guessed.

Ruth had my dinner on the table when I came out of Sam's room. She'd already eaten. I said, "He's sleeping like a log," and she didn't say anything. I opened a can of beer and ate the food she'd cooked. She sat down across from me and started talking in a rush about one of her piano students at the school, some little boy. Then it was as if she just ran out of things to say. We sat there in silence. And gradually, as the dead minutes started piling up between us, and while I drank a second beer and then a third, I began to feel there was something wrong in the house, a kind of stillness that I didn't recognize or care for. To me right then she looked not like my wife but like some woman alone in a roadside diner at night; some woman who was waiting for anything or anyone but the usual scene she found staring back at her. And I realized that for weeks now I'd hardly seen her or Sam; had, in fact, not a clue what she might be thinking as she sat across from me with her mouth closed and her eyes fixed on the table. Boredom? Indifference? Resentment? I had no idea. Which, finally, was the only thing I could think to say to her. That I didn't know. And that was when, still looking down at the table, she told me that she was having an affair with a man named Norris Wheldon.

From here it all looks simple. I'd always had a temper, though for much of my life I'd kept it hidden away, safe and out of sight. My father was a violent man who used to beat me with a stripped-down juniper branch he'd taken from our yard. He had his method. Each time, he'd raise that branch and pause, hoping to catch me flinching or, better yet, raising my own hand against him. Any sign of fear or anger from me gave him the right to thrash me like some runt in a bar. The happiest summer of my childhood was when my body finally started turning into a man's. If I hadn't gone off to college, I might have killed him. I was a freshman at U Conn when he dropped dead of a heart attack. I didn't go home for the funeral.

My wife told me that she was in love with Norris Wheldon and planned to divorce me so she could marry him. She said she intended to keep Sam with her. I could visit him when I wanted, she said, as long as when I wanted wasn't more than one day a week. It was a canned speech, as if she'd prepared it while making the meat loaf. I was a lawyer. I should've been calm right then, calm and already building my case against her. What I felt instead was something else. My old friend Jack Cutter, who later represented me before the state, made a big deal to the court about the five beers I'd drunk that night (he included the two I'd had while still at work). He called what happened a "double impairment" of my senses brought about by alcohol and jealous rage. That essentially was my defense. It sounded plausible to me. I wanted someone to explain to me and for me how I could have done what I'd done, and Jack obliged. I had been impaired. The court agreed, up to a point.

To this day it feels the same to me; it feels no different. I see it all. Ruth gives me her canned speech about her and Norris and my son and our future, her eyes darting away like minnows. Then, all done, she waits for me to react. And when I don't, when I sit there with my cleaned plate and my three empties and do nothing, she starts getting nervous. Too quick she says, "Well, okay, Dwight. Okay then. I thought I should tell you myself, and now I've told you. It's over. Bob Jamison's going to be my attorney. I'm sorry." She gets up, taking my plate, clearing my place like it's any old day, and goes into the kitchen.

She's halfway to the sink when I hit her. Hit her with my fist as hard as I can, my knuckles striking around her right ear and drawing blood. She cries out and crumples to the ground. My wife. The plate shatters on the linoleum. I take a look at her on the floor, but it hasn't registered yet, hasn't happened yet. It was somebody else's fist. I don't feel released or relieved. And I turn to go. It's not my house any more. Not my wife. Every bit of it is a mistake. I get to the front door and am putting on my coat.

She grabs me from behind by the hair and pulls, screaming, "Bastard!" Rips a clump of my hair out by the roots, scalp too, like somebody sticking hot pins into my brain. It makes me crazy and I lash out blindly, a roundhouse punch for her stomach. To end it.

I hit my son in the face.

He had arrived, running, to protect us from ourselves. It had never occurred to me he'd do that. The bones in his jaw were fragile like a bird's and I felt them break under my fist.

He was unconscious for a little while. He had a concussion. His jaw was wired, I was told, for weeks afterwards.

Jack Cutter, old friend, did his legal best and got me two years' probation, during which time I was suspended from practicing law. It was strongly advised that I move to another part of the state, which I did. I got counseling. Every week I wrote a letter to Sam. Once in a while, he wrote back. He said he was feeling okay, school was okay, he didn't like his stepdad so much. His spelling was bad, and sometimes I worried about permanent damage. It was four years before I was allowed to see him again.

I moved back to the northwest corner of the state, to a town about ten miles southeast of Bow Mills called Box Corner. So I could see my son again--Sundays, home by seven, nice and easy now. Ruth Wheldon looking at me. It was hard at first, but it was a life. Jack Cutter was good enough to take me on as a partner in his small-town practice in Canaan, and was patient when I was slow to bring in business. Not everyone was so friendly. There were some people around Bow Mills who still remembered all too well what they thought happened that night. But Sam wasn't one of them. He never mentioned what I'd done to him, or seemed to be chewing on it. If you didn't already know his history, I thought, you wouldn't know it. He was a pretty regular boy.

We went to ball games and things. And for a while, that was my life.


It was a quarter to nine and we were still twenty, twenty-five minutes from Ruth's. How had it happened? I had us on the shortcut that I knew like my own birthday, and we were zinging along in the dark without a right headlight, the trees standing dense as pitch on either side of the road. It was hard to see. I threw a smoldering butt out the window and lit another cigarette. We were late. Sam was asleep with his cheek pressed up against the door and I was starting to talk to myself. Sorry I'm late, Ruth. The game went extra innings. Sam says it was the best damn game he's ever seen, Ruth. Go ahead, ask him. . . . See? Right, okay then. Take that fucking noose from around my neck. It was tricky when my thoughts got going to keep my foot from pressing too hard on the pedal; just my brain trying to shape what was happening in a more favorable way. I switched on the radio--low, so as not to wake him. A little bit of country music to take the edge off.

But I couldn't keep from thinking: in the light of day you could see the faint scar on Sam's smooth face, a thin white tributary mapping the line of his reconstructed jaw.


I don't remember checking the speedometer. Reservation Road was too black for that speed. I was thinking about Sam, hoping he'd remember the day for what was good in it, when I drove us too fast into the first of the two sharp, tree-packed turns leading to Tod Lovell's gas station. The car started shimmying across the midline and too late I tried to adjust, cutting the wheel hard to the right. But I cut too hard. The front wheels were already on the near shoulder of the second turn before I jerked the wheel sharply back to the left, the tires screeching, quick and pinched, until I cut the wheel again and the fishtail straightened though the road did not, but still I felt control coming back and almost sighed with relief. And then suddenly on the right the trees opened and the three glowing red letters of Tod's sign appeared.

I don't know how a single frame could have held so much: two old-fashioned pumps and a flat-roofed building with one bright-lit window but no other lights, as if the planet right there was underwater. A station wagon parked in front with all its doors open, looking like a winged flying machine. And a man, a tall, dark-haired man with little round glasses, coming out of the office carrying something in his hand. He was looking at me and I was looking at him, through the dimness. I saw his mouth open wide, and then his eyes moved off me, his head snapping around to see the road ahead.

And then I saw what he saw.

The boy standing in the road as if he'd sprouted from it. Dark-haired like his father. And the father's shout suddenly making a kind of sense: "Josh!" The front of my car hit him in the chest. The useless headlight popped like a gunshot. And he flew away into the darkness.

The impact made the car shudder. My foot came off the gas. And we were coasting, still there, but moving, fleeing. Unless I braked now: Do it. My foot started for the brake. But then Sam started to wail in pain and I froze. I looked over and he was holding his face in both hands and screaming in pain. I went cold. "Sam!" I shouted, his name coming from deep down in my gut and sounding louder and more desperate to my ears than any sound I'd ever made. He didn't respond. "Sam!"

In the rearview mirror I saw the dark-haired man sprinting up the road after us. His fury and his fear were in his half-shadowed face, the frenzied pumping of his arms. He was coming to punish me, and for a moment I wanted him to. My foot was inching toward the brake. But suddenly I felt Sam warm against my side, curling up and holding on and bawling like a baby. I put my foot on the gas.

As we began to pull away, I checked the mirror one last time: the man had veered off our path and was bent over in the thick roadside shrubs. Where his child was. About my son's age, maybe still alive, though I knew he wasn't.

The car kept picking up speed. Then we were gone from that clearing, swallowed up by the trees.
John Burnham Schwartz

About John Burnham Schwartz

John Burnham Schwartz - Reservation Road

Photo © © Melissa Forman

John Burnham Schwartz is the author of the novels Claire Marvel, Bicycle Days and Reservation Road, which is being made into a motion picture based on his screenplay, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, and Jennifer Connelly. His books have been translated into more than fifteen languages and his writing has appeared in many publications, including the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Boston Globe, and Vogue. He lives with his wife and son in Brooklyn, New York.

 

Praise

Praise

"This is a shattering book, imagined with startling emotional precision and generosity. And though it begins in catastrophe, Reservation Road turns out to be a kind of map of connectedness: Touch a child here and the whole world trembles out of orbit; everyone bleeds; finally, perhaps, after great pain, everyone heals. John Burnham Schwartz is awfully young to own this much wisdom, but there it is, on every page."
--Rosellen Brown

"A powerful and affecting novel...haunting...highly suspenseful...compelling to read."
--Michiko Kakutani, New York Times

"Spellbinding...a haunting tale"
--Booklist

"A poignant thriller...quietly breathtaking...a suspenseful literary novel"
--Betsey Osborne, Vanity Fair

"A pleasure to read. Suspense is redefined here..."
--Sandra Scofield, Newsday

"A lovely book, full of life and feeling"
--Peter Matthiessen

"One of those rare--very rare--novels that you don't so much read as inhabit...But it's the novel's conclusion, as perfect as it is sudden, shocking and completely unexpected, that will stick in your memory."        
--Tom Dehaven, Entertainment Weekly

"A beautiful novel. An important novel"
--David Bowman, New York Observer

"Both a beautiful, wrenching story of redemption, and a novel of exquisite suspense"
--Anne Lamott

"A first-rate work of fiction disguised as a page-turning thriller"
--David Halberstam

"An unexpected pleasure...It will leave the reader entranced as well as moved."
--Erica Noonan, Boston Herald

"A non-stop read...a wonderful writer"
--Ward Just

"A triumph of form, pacing and power...character-driven as it is, it reads like a thrille, swift and complete."
--Kit Reed, New York Times Book Review

"It possesses a conclusion of such power that it would be a literary crime to reveal it."
--Deirdre Donahue, USA Today

  • Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz
  • October 05, 1999
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $15.00
  • 9780375702730

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