Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/6/2010 (2436 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
By Adam Ross
HarperCollins, 335 pages, $32
AMERICAN writer Adam Ross's audaciously assured first novel centres on David Pepin, a video-game designer who may or may not have killed his wife, Alice.
David obsessively imagines Alice dead. He writes a novel in which the main character imagines his wife dead. When Alice ends up dead, David finds himself at the centre of a homicide investigation.
David claims Alice committed suicide by inducing anaphylactic shock -- she is found at the kitchen table with peanut particles in her throat. Treating marriage as "a long double homicide," Ross unpacks the couple's complex 13-year relationship with tender precision.
The Tennessee-based Ross has been getting a lot of buzz for this sneaky-smart hybrid thriller. (Stephen King, somewhat of a blurb whore these days, reported that it gave him nightmares.)
Mr. Peanut starts like a standard police procedural, but Ross plays with the genre, layering surreal fantasy and literary trickery onto the kind of unsparing emotional realism you'd see in the work of Richard Yates or John Updike.
The first clue that Ross is up to something is found in the names and histories of the investigating cops, Ward Hastroll and Sam Sheppard.
Hastroll was happily married until his wife abruptly took to her bed. When he begs her to get up after months of inexplicable invalidism, she responds by saying, "You still don't get it."
In one of the novel's many Hitchcock references, Ward's name is an anagram of Lars Thorwald, a character in the 1954 film Rear Window who kills his bedridden wife.
Sheppard's background is based on the notorious 1954 case in which a prominent Ohio doctor was convicted and later exonerated for the brutal murder of his wife. The section in which Ross imagines the Sheppard marriage as a prison of volatile hatred and impossible love is both a meticulously researched true-crime reconstruction and a stunning bit of psychological fiction.
David's video games are based on the work of Dutch artist M.C. Escher, and the novel's structure shares Escher's Mobius-strip complexities and sudden reversals of perception. The three fatal marriages twist around each other, spiralling toward the novel's final truth.
Ross pulls off some alarmingly good writing. Some sections of Mr. Peanut are aggressive, slashing and mordantly funny, while other passages -- especially the long description of the central trauma of David and Alice's marriage -- pulse with delicate insight. (Ross claims to be a big fan of Alice Munro).
In plotting, Ross owes a debt to Patricia Highsmith, whose novels A Suspension of Mercy and The Blunderer use similar premises. But he doesn't share Highsmith's chilly misanthropy.
Marriage matters in Mr. Peanut. Ross, who's been married for 17 murder-free years, is clearly fascinated with the institution, with its unstable mixture of passion and domesticity, of life-altering moments and everyday routines.
Intimacy is both a promise and a threat in this dark and powerful literary detective story, in which the real mystery lies at the centre of the human heart.
Free Press columnist Alison Gillmor loves to read about other people's marriages.