An "act of violence" occurs in the middle of the night. This is how the plot point on which Peter Gadol balances his beautifully written, suspenseful new novel "Silver Lake" is described on the back cover of the book. While it might be possible to write about "Silver Lake" without being more specific, it wouldn't do the novel justice, so I'll dispense with the two-step.
At the end of the first chapter, on a cold September night, in a glass house warmed by a fire in the stone hearth and the sturdy love and fidelity of Robbie Voight and Carlo Stein, two men who have been together since college 20 years earlier, an acquaintance named Tom Field, whom they've just met that day, hangs himself from the liquidambar tree that reaches over the back patio.
Gadol is the author of five previous novels, and he writes with mellifluous specificity about the hills and homes of Silver Lake. He opens things here with an 88-word sentence in which he describes the light, lake and hillside brush with a particularity that is deeply pleasing.
He's also in control of the pace of the book, which is especially important given its suspenseful elements. Robbie meets Tom by chance -- or so we think -- at the office of Stein Voight, the architectural firm where Robbie and Carlo are partners.
This first meeting hints at many things, including a possible grift, but Robbie is drawn to Tom -- as are we. Robbie thinks there's something "unhusked" about him. They play tennis that afternoon, but when Robbie brings Tom back to the house for dinner, Carlo is clearly hesitant.
By this point, we know that Carlo has met Tom before, and that he's kept it a secret from Robbie. The where and why of this is one of the main supports of the novel and I won't give it away, except to say that Gadol masterfully withholds and reveals the information related to this part of the book.
Along that line, Gadol creates a fluid knowing and not-knowing between narrator, reader and character. Rather than tell us about the secrets Robbie keeps from Carlo, he shows them to us in scenes. He also lets us know that Carlo is lying about something key to the puzzle of Tom's death.
The question of what role, if any, Carlo has played in the death hovers over the novel. Its resolution is not entirely successful, partly because Gadol teases it for so long that it can't live up to the promise. And yet, it is proof of the depth and strength of the narrative that despite this flaw, the novel is fundamentally sound.
That soundness reverberates because the inner story, which is driven by the yearning of these believable characters, is as compelling as the outer mystery.
Make no mistake: This is a domestic novel. It's as much about a long marriage -- or what would no doubt be a long marriage if Robbie and Carlo lived in a state that allowed this basic human right -- as it is about the question of Tom's identity and the nature of his death. Watching Robbie and Carlo, we see the literal and figurative transactions that occur in every long relationship and that are often unbalanced, even unfair.
Carlo takes care of the finances and the worries, "protecting" Robbie from the truth. Robbie daydreams and sketches for clients and is willfully ignorant of financial issues. Are they happy in these roles? Before Tom dies in their home, that's not a question Carlo or Robbie has ever asked.
Rounding out the story are a couple of important subplots: one involving a television producer client who is to Stein Voight what chemotherapy is to the cancer patient -- necessary and dreaded -- and another about a neighborhood boy, 15-year-old Gabriel, who is a surrogate son of sorts to Robbie and Carlo. It is Gabriel who holds Carlo to task for his deceit and who plays a key role in the novel's ending.
Gadol takes a big risk with that ending, making a choice that may seem puzzling to some. It makes sense, though, if you remember that early in the novel, after Robbie describes Tom as "alone and lonely," a police officer asks, "What kind of lonely?"
That startling question haunts this novel, and Gadol's ending speaks to it. He doesn't let us (or, for that matter, Carlo or Robbie) turn away. What kind of lonely were they before and after Tom's death? We choose.
By suggesting we do so, Gadol asks us to look in our own mirrors. What kind of lonely are we?