At the heart of Christopher Sorrentino's stunning new novel is a storyteller. To writer Alexander "Sandy" Mulligan, John Salteau is an Ojibway man who tells native tales to children at the Cherry City public library. But to newspaper reporter Kat Danhoff, the storyteller is Jackie Saltino, a bagman who made off with close to half a million dollars from the local Indian casino, Manitou Sands. They may both be right.
The book opens with Mulligan's first-person account of his life in Michigan, a place he has ostensibly retreated to in order to leave behind an extremely messy divorce in New York City and complete a novel that is under contract but far from finished.
"It seemed right to him, right and just, that a gifted person should flee from the distractions and temptations of the big city, flee from the difficulties of a complicated personal life, to make art in self-imposed exile, working from the provinces."
In the language of recovery, this is called "pulling a geographic": an attempt to elude one's problems by picking up and starting over somewhere new, and judging by Mulligan's stiff, overly formal prose, he knows it. If anything, Mulligan's problems worsen in Michigan. He takes up smoking, drinks too much, eats badly, and goes on long walks on the wintry lakeshore, "To show myself that I was someplace real." Then Danhoff turns up and shows him a good deal more than he bargained for.
They meet at the library where Salteau/Saltino plies his trade. Mulligan inserts himself into the reporter's story by lying about his relationship to the storyteller as casually as he might drop a character into a scene.
Suddenly the novel switches to third person and moves back in time so that the reader learns what brought Danhoff to Cherry City and get her perspective on her encounter with Mulligan.
Naturally, the two versions don't quite sync up, and the reader is cast into the role of detective to sift through what's really happening between this unlikely pair.
Like Mulligan, Danhoff is no stranger to bad breakups and seems on the verge of leaving her second husband back in Chicago. She's deliberately coy about her upbringing, so much so that it's practically her moral code: "I think that every day you should do one thing that you'll never tell anybody about.... Every single day, to remind you that you're free. To be free."
She is diligent in her pursuit of the story despite not being particularly ambitious, and she exudes a kind of listless availability that attracts men that are as adrift in the world as she is.
"Just needed her phone, her laptop, a wallet full of cards, and she could begin a new life this afternoon if she wanted. Nothing had to tie her to a place or to a past. She knew that. Personal history was a string of numbers. The days of the orally preserved reputation were over."
For Danhoff, that's probably a good thing as she makes reckless decision after reckless decision. "Skin against skin, the foundation of every crude hope since the origin of time."
The novel's fascinating but unusual structure is a bit like "doubling down" in a game of blackjack: When the player doubles the wager the dealer initiates a second bet as part of the same hand. Sorrentino's twinning of his protagonists' narratives raises the stakes, and it works; if Sorrentino is the dealer, the reader is the eye in the sky, the all-seeing camera, a half-step ahead of Mulligan, the author who has lost the thread.
But "The Fugitives" is neither an experimental high-wire act nor a plodding whodunit but something in between, an entirely new kind of novel with exceptional interior monologues animated by deception, double-dealing and a doomed affair that lends an air of existential dread to the story: "it never occurred to me to rue the day, as the saying has it. Yet to rue the day doesn't even begin to cover it. One would have to rue every day, every one that came before and every new one as it arrives and all those to come in anticipation. Only in death is there time to rue life as fully as life deserves."
Once the novel moves into high gear, Sorrentino adopts an omniscient point of view and assembles New York mobsters, Ojibway hit men, literary agents and a noble newspaper editor named Nables, who may be the only person with integrity in the entire novel, to propel the story to its spectacular finish.
In "The Fugitives" each ruse escalates to something ruinous. An illustration: Danhoff's editor, Nables, arranges the filing cabinets in the bullpen in such a way so as to form a crude office that, from the inside, resembles a coffin, foreshadowing the demise of the very principles to which he has dedicated his life. For Danhoff a lifetime of lying about where she comes from isn't enough to budge her from her unsustainable position that "Identity was a trap."
"The Fugitives" serves as a cautionary tale for anyone considering the implications of getting married, having an affair, writing a novel, or moving to the country in the service of one's art. Or it would if Sorrentino's electric prose and mordant wit didn't tap into the secret desire we all have from time to time to shed our skin and start over.
Ruland is the author of the novel "Forest of Fortune."
Simon & Schuster: 336 pp., $26