The Night Country

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

At midnight on Halloween a car full of teenagers flies off a rural road in New England and collides with a tree. Three die, and the two survivors, one a physical wreck and the other an emotional casualty, try to put their lives back together with the routines of school and dead-end jobs. Another of the walking dead is Officer Brooks, the first on the accident scene and a man with a dark secret about that night.

The narrator is one of the dead adolescents—Marco—whose voice is a blend of teenage hipness and adult reflection. Periodically, as he relates events, the voices of the two other dead teenagers intrude, that of the empathetic Danielle and of the stoned slacker, Toe, the reckless driver. They operate like a young Greek chorus, warning the living of dangers and darkly predicting the future for the reader.

Author Stewart O’Nan does a superb job of subtly contrasting the sensibilities of young people and the adults who have been shattered by their carelessness. Tim, one of the survivors, is revealed to be a master of deception in appearing to have put his devastating loss behind him and continued on with his life. The brain-damaged Kyle is convincingly revealed to be a child in a young adult’s body, like the character George in Of Mice and Men, obsessing over the next snowfall. Kyle’s mother struggles to grant her son independence while hovering over his every move. Finally Officer Brooks is a twisted mass of guilt and pain.

Despite its seeming thriller conventions, The Night Country is the product of a serious talent. O’Nan is a stylist, and the novel’s strength is its ability to modulate its varying styles and suggest a breadth of observation.