Christopher J. Yates begins his new novel, Grist Mill Road, with a crime in progress:
"I remember the gunshots made a wet sort of sound, phssh phssh phssh."
It is summer, 1982, and in a clearing in the woods outside the small town of Roseborn, N.Y., a 14-year-old boy shoots a 13-year-old girl over and over and over again with a BB gun while, close by, a 12-year-old boy stands and watches.
Matthew does the shooting. He fires 49 times at Hannah, who is tied to a tree — the last shot hitting her in the left eye and blinding her for life. And for ten minutes, Patrick (Matthew's unlikely best friend) does nothing. He is frozen, shocked. When the last BB hits Hannah in the eye, both boys are convinced that Matthew has killed her. They run, hide. Eventually, Patrick goes back to cut Hannah down and finds her alive, so he helps her down, gets her on the back of his bike, and rides her down to town — though even then he knows it is too little, and far too late.
This is the set-up. All of it contained in the first pages. And our first image of it all — the day, the crime, the aftermath — comes from Patrick. It is his eyes we see through, his thoughts we hear, the blossoming of his self-loathing to which we bear uncomfortable witness.
Because you want to hate him, right? This kid (even though he was just a kid), standing by and doing nothing while witnessing something so monstrous? You hurt for Hannah, the victim. And hating Matthew is easy. He's the monster. But Patrick? Somehow, he seems even worse. You want to hate him because he could've stopped it.
But that's okay, because Patrick hates himself more than you ever could. He never recovers. And the remainder of the novel (which is to say nine-tenths of it) is all about answering three questions:
What becomes of the kind of person who could shoot an innocent, helpless girl like that?
What becomes of the girl who was the victim?
And what becomes of Patrick, who just watched.
The novel bounces back and forth between retellings of the events that led up to the shooting in 1982 by the three primary characters, Patrick, Matthew and Hannah, and the eventual fallout that only comes 26 years later, when all three of them find themselves living in New York, still suffering, each in their own ways, and still connected by that one awful day — by secrets that each of them carry and can not ever tell. Hannah survived, grew up to be a crime reporter, has night terrors. Matthew went to prison, then got out, changed his name, found money, success. And Patrick ...
Patrick is a man who never outgrew his 12-year-old self; who still hates himself for what he did (and didn't do) on that summer afternoon, and has let it infect every other part of his life. He is catastrophically depressed, paranoid, living half in a fantasy world where he has made a hundred different life choices and half in a rapidly graying real one — a hell of nothingness and silence and secrets, listening to the voices in his head and building toward doing something just as terrible as it is inevitable.
To say anything more than that would blow Yates's closing. His twist — which isn't as stunningly black-hearted and brilliant as the one he pulled off in his first novel, Black Chalk, but still packs a slow-burn punch when all the threads of narrative and back-story start pulling together.
In the end, Grist Mill Road is a story about how no terrible thing happens in a vacuum. How no one ever really knows anyone else's interior landscapes as well as they think they do, and how even the simpler exterior ones can hide the most devastating kinds of lies. It is a story about the things we don't know, and how often we're wrong about the things we think we do.
In 1982, these three people were involved in something terrible, but they were children. They saw as children, acted as children, understood as children. 26 years later, they are adults — grown and wiser — but it is clear that none of them ever really left that clearing in the woods. None of them really walked away.
And they all have business that still needs to be finished there.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.