Late last football season, with the Bears tanking and the Packers still undefeated, author Patrick Somerville was on a walk with his wife in their Edgewater neighborhood. The Green Bay native wore his Pack hat and, strapped to his chest, their newborn son. A passing motorist yelled, “Packers suck—you suck!”
“And I yelled back at him,” Somerville says. “I was like what the fuck am I doing, I have a baby here.”
This theme of modifying your behavior for family—and your family modifying your behavior—runs through his latest novel, This Bright River (Little Brown, $24.99).
After an embarrassing stint in white-collar prison, 32-year-old Ben Hanson returns to his small hometown of St. Helens, Wisconsin. His father, owner of a chemical company, has made him an offer he can’t refuse: prepare his dead Uncle Denny’s house for the market and get 25 percent of the commission. It’s 2008, and the house, like our narrator, isn’t going anywhere. “It’s a hell of a lot easier to reinvent yourself when your family’s not there,” Ben says. Somerville sees it more holistically.
“Families are what we are, in one way, and they are what we don’t want to be, in another way,” says Somerville, author of two collections of stories and two novels, and winner of the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s 21st Century award. “[Family] is where our lives are.”
Ben is the only one in his family who hasn’t moved on from the cryptic death of his older cousin Wayne, who froze to death a decade earlier on Wayne’s father’s Upper Peninsula property. While Ben pieces together the past, he reconnects with the inscrutable Lauren, his one-time classmate who returned to town after a harrowing internship at a refugee camp in Chad. She’s left behind her physician husband and is no longer practicing medicine, but she is as guarded about her past as the Hanson family is about Wayne’s death. As Ben coaxes her from her cocoon, Lauren shares the narrating duties.
It’s jarring at first, because Ben’s jilted slacker past and his unwelcome reception are so much fun to read. The oddballs who populated the road quest in Somerville’s tightly wound, slender first novel, The Cradle, are outdone by the secondary characters of St. Helens. Somerville relies less on eccentricities and more on directness, especially with Ben’s sardonic sister and righteous if not well-intentioned parents. We get their motives and duplicities—their human complexities—through witty dialogue and sharply crafted group scenes.
As the difficult romance between Ben and Lauren intensifies, the shared narration becomes necessary: They are essentially talking to each other. The novel soon transcends a coming-home story or a love story. At 450 pages, it’s indeed a bigger book, as Somerville intended, that peers into the love and evil mankind carries in the same strand of DNA. And the simplest decisions by Ben and Lauren embroil them in a fight for life and death.
“The choices we make really do matter, every one of them,” Somerville says. “The book is preoccupied with destruction, how easy it is to destroy things and how hard it is to build them.”
This paradox especially includes love. For Ben, family creates a burden of loyalty, but that burden also gives protection from an uncontrollable world. The same could be said of the intimate love between Ben and Lauren. One scene that didn’t make the book but is indicative of their love, according to Somerville, is of the two of them in a tent in the middle of winter. “It’s frozen outside, there’s nothing there, all you have is this little tiny pocket of warmth together,” Somerville explains, “and you need to maintain it to push back against the world.”
Somerville reads Saturday 16.