The Big Picture

It is customary and, on the whole, sensible to read first novels with one eye on the intrinsic qualities of the book at hand and the other on the promise for the future the book may suggest. The three parts of Douglas Kennedy’s first novel, THE BIG PICTURE, do not ultimately cohere, and the resolution is evasive and unsatisfying. Yet each of the three parts is sufficiently gripping in itself to ensure that few readers who begin the book will be able to put it aside. On the strength of this debut, Kennedy is a writer to watch.

Although to all outward appearances successful, Ben Bradford, Kennedy’s protagonist, is bored by his work and unhappy in his marriage. The discovery that his wife is having an affair leads to a confrontation between cuckolded husband and gloating lover. In a sudden rage Ben kills the other man, then sets out, not only to conceal all evidence of the crime, but to fake his own death as well. Assuming the identity of the man he has killed, Ben heads west, where he is able to embark at last on the kind of life he has always wanted to live. It soon becomes evident, however, that the past is not to be so easily dismissed.

Part one of the novel works so well as a portrait of a marriage gone sour that the reader may regret the turn in part two from domestic novel to thriller. Yet Ben’s efforts to escape the consequences of his unpremeditated violence generate sufficient suspense to work on their own terms. Part three’s depiction of a paradise found just too late effectively balances wish-fulfillment fantasy and reality principle. Each part, in short, works on its own terms, even if they do not quite work together. There is, then, all the more reason to regret the fuzzy compromise Kennedy offers as an ending. Still, the varied gifts on display here justify high hopes for the author’s future work and inspire curiosity as to whether he will continue to work in the suspense mode or develop his demonstrated abilities as a straight novelist.