The Night Country
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 229 pp., $22
Stewart O’Nan’s “The Night Country” is a modern-day ghost story set in a New England suburb. Though there are frightening woods and eerie pastoral landscapes like those encountered by Ichabod Crane in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” O’Nan’s characters contend with Blockbuster, McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts as well.
The ghosts are three high school students who were killed in a car crash on Halloween. The haunted are their parents, their two surviving friends and the police officer who was engaged in a high-speed pursuit of them when they careened into a tree on a winding road at midnight.
As ghosts go, Marco, Toe and Danielle do not make a particularly terrifying threesome. They are typical teenagers: goofy, confused, mischievous, loving, bickering, clannish and lonely. But this is precisely what makes them so compelling. Living teenagers, truth be told, are often merely annoying, while these three lost souls -- dead yet still somehow around and unsure what to do with themselves -- provide a touching portrait of teen angst that is wonderfully free of irony.
“The Night Country” escapes youthful cliches because Marco, Toe and Danielle are going to be teens forever. Their “growing pains” are permanent, a condition that lays powerful claim to the reader’s heart. “It’s late and there’s nowhere to go because this town sucks so much,” narrator Marco explains, sounding a familiar enough refrain. As it happens, the three will never be able to leave, a fact they keep bumping up against throughout the story.
O’Nan deftly charts the spiritual territory in which the three must dwell. There are rules to their parallel existence, none of which are much to their liking. We learn that they can go anywhere in the town of Avon so long as someone is thinking of them or remembering the accident, or wherever there is someone related in some way to the accident. They can even be summoned by the living if the emotional pitch of memory is high enough.
Conversely, they split the scene if no one knows them. "[A]lready we’re fading, disintegrating, our outlines flickering with bad ‘Star Trek’ special effects,” Marco explains when the three find themselves in a high school classroom of strangers. “There’s no one to remember us here, so we’re gone.”
What’s a ghost to do, especially an impatient teenage one? Their hauntings are for the most part unintentional and largely ineffective. Sometimes, they spook raccoons out of cover in vain attempts to let old chums know they’re still around. They have no desire to disturb Kyle and Tim, the two friends who were in the car with them the night of the accident, though they would like to help them.
Danielle was (or is, since they still carry a torch for one another) Tim’s girlfriend, and she routinely tries to touch him and communicate with him to assuage his pain, but she only manages to create strange fissures that fill him with melancholy and longing. When he hatches a plan to commemorate the accident once and for all on the upcoming Halloween, she clings to his side helplessly, wanting to dissuade him.
Even the rambunctious Toe, who drove the car that ill-fated night, desires to do something for his parents, but all he can do is show up at their house and watch.
Brooks, the policeman who chased them, occupies a central position in their ghostly lives. He is wracked with guilt over a secret he harbors about the accident. It is slowly destroying his life, and the three visit him frequently. His obsession with them is their tonic. Whenever he goes down to his basement to pick through the file on the accident, it provides the three with a sense of belonging.
A tormented Brooks pours over photographs of the wreckage: Danielle thrown from the car and nearly decapitated; Toe and Marco smashed to bits; Kyle still alive but with a face of Frankenstein and permanent brain damage, and Tim, the only one physically unscathed, who is screaming out for help. As Brooks reconstructs that night, he also is reconstructing the last moment of Danielle’s, Toe’s and Marco’s normal lives, so it is little wonder they crowd around him.
All the characters are bound to that tragic Halloween night, but as it turns out that the approaching Halloween holds even more surprises.
Though Marco, Toe and Danielle have mixed feelings about Tim’s plans, in the end, they’re teenagers and ghosts, which means they’re up for a good thrill no matter the consequences. “Come then, come with us, out into the night,” they beckon. You know better, but it’s impossible to resist.