'Castle,' by J. Robert Lennon


A Novel

J. Robert Lennon

Graywolf Press: 224 pp., $22

All novelists ask for a certain level of creative indulgence from their readers, that necessary leap of faith to find truth in the fiction. But with his new work, "Castle," J. Robert Lennon might just be asking for a bit too much.

Lennon sets his story around Gerrysburg, a rural village in New York state very much like the small towns that dot the countryside near Ithaca, where Lennon lives. It's 2006, and Eric Loesch has returned after more than 20 years to buy a vacant, dilapidated house on 612 acres of land a few miles outside his hometown.

Loesch is a taciturn man, and handy as he renovates the abandoned farmhouse. He uses a floor sander and a paintbrush with equal skill and single-handedly nails a new layer of shingles on the battered roof. But there is something wrong with Loesch, we quickly realize -- a dent to the soul from some past collision that everyone in Lennon's created world knows about but doesn't mention with any specificity whenever he (or the reader) is in earshot.

It's clear that Loesch has some sort of military background -- special ops, maybe? -- and has the trained killer's stoic ability to compartmentalize pain. So you know the story flashback is going to take you somewhere -- Iraq or Afghanistan, maybe? -- where bad deeds were done. And it becomes clear Loesch has done some of them.

Loesch has returned home because he has no other place to go. Friendless and unfriendly, he wants to be left alone to explore the land he has bought, and to find a way to reach the top of a granite monolith that he is surprised to find jutting up in the middle of the trees and tangled undergrowth of his property.

Omens abound. There's a keening cry in the night. A mysterious white deer. Knowing glances among the townsfolk. A property map with an acre-island of land abutting the granite rock that Loesch discovers wasn't part of the land he bought and whose owner's name has been blacked out from the records.

And this, of course, is the heart of the mystery -- who is the hidden owner? Anyone who really wanted to know would just drive over to the county tax office and look it up. Loesch, instead, badgers the help in the office of the lawyer who handled the land sale until a disgruntled secretary slips him the blacked-out name. "The sight of those words caused my stomach to turn over," he says when he sees who it is.

Loesch tries to hike to the granite rock but finds no easy path through woods marked by "an unrelenting, almost unnatural sameness" and nearly impenetrable brush. He prides himself on his sense of direction, and he tells us that that skill had served him well "in much more perilous situations than this one."

But Loesch gets lost, and we are meant to infer something dark and evil is going on. The truly curious would hop online and have a look through Google Earth or some other satellite-map feature, a step the otherwise-resourceful Loesch doesn't consider. If he had, he'd have found out sooner about the castle someone had built on that square of land he doesn't own.

The problem is, Loesch knows full well what's in the middle of the woods he bought -- he spent two summers there, the details of which fuel the psychological-thriller aspect of Lennon's tale. There's an evil Svengali in the middle of it all -- the man whose mere name turns Loesch's stomach and who is remarkably spry scampering through the tangled growth, despite having to be at least in his mid-70s to fit within the plot's timeline (Lennon tells us he earned a doctorate in 1958).

Ultimately the fiction is too thin to be convincing. It's unclear whether Lennon wants us to believe Loesch is reconnecting with a repressed memory or whether Lennon has simply engaged in a literary sleight of hand.

To get much further into the plot would give it all away, but in general terms, the past becomes present, the mysteries are revealed -- implausible as they may be -- and Lennon crafts a suitably inscrutable ending.

Was Loesch really looking for a sanctuary after his travails, or was he on a secret mission?

Or was the trip home and the purchase of the land a ruse to settle an old score?

Unfortunately for Lennon, it's hard to care. That's the inherent risk in building a novel around a one-dimensional protagonist -- there's little for the reader to invest in. And though Lennon's spare language fits the character, it doesn't serve the reader. Loesch receives a "cryptic message." "The handwriting was not one I recognized, and I cast about in my mind for whose it might be." The cryptic message was the name of the mystery landowner -- nothing cryptic about that.

Given those weaknesses, you hope for a killer plot with twists and turns to propel you along. But there's nothing particularly riveting here. "Castle" has its moments: Loesch's flashbacks to his youth and his interactions with his parents are compelling, and Lennon would have had a better book if he had spent more time rummaging around in those personalities.

But that wouldn't have overcome the novel's fundamental flaw. Lennon doesn't seem to know what his story is. A gothic tale? A psychological thriller? An exploration of violence? A revenge saga?

That isn't to say "Castle" needs to fit a genre, but it does need to be convincing. It's not.

Martelle is an Irvine-based journalist and author of "Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West."