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Downward spirals – ‘The Quiet Boy’

June 8, 2021
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When the inexplicable occurs, who bears the blame?

That’s one of the central questions in “The Quiet Boy” (Mulholland Books, $28), the new novel from Ben H. Winters. It’s a bifurcated story – on one side, a medical mystery, on the other, a capital murder case – where both tales are connected through time by a tragic event that ultimately proves damaging to two different families.

Winters has never been one to be bound by genre constraints, so it’s no surprise to see the author venturing in a different direction. Here, he’s tackling the courtroom drama with the same genre fluidity and narrative inventiveness that he brings to all of his work. Sad and surprising, “The Quiet Boy” crosses all manner of literary borders to capture these myriad lives.

In 2008, a lawyer named Jay Shenk, deemed by some to be an “ambulance chaser” (though he finds that descriptor distasteful) finds himself involved with the Keener family. One day, young Wesley Keener – a teenager – is rushed to the hospital with an injury requiring surgery. Unfortunately, not all of Wesley wakes up. What remains is a dead-eyed automaton, endlessly walking in circles around his hospital room – a phenomenon that no one can explain.

When Jay meets Beth, Wesley’s mother, outside the hospital and learns about what happened to her son, he encourages her to sue the facility for malpractice. She decides to sign on with the reluctant agreement of her husband Richard.

In 2019, Jay Shenk is a shell of himself, far removed from the glory days of his profitable practice. His grown son Ruben – once a vital part of both his life and his work – is estranged from him, working at a salad restaurant. And yet, when Beth Keener approaches him for legal help – this time, for a murder case involving another member of her family – Jay takes the case, despite the multitude of issues surrounding the situation, including many connections to that previous lawsuit a decade prior.

Back and forth we move between these two timelines, watching as each narrative plays out in a manner that seems inevitable … right until it isn’t. There’s plenty more bubbling beneath the surface of this situation than any of these players understand. The path we follow is littered with cultists and rock stars, even as we make our way toward the hope of resolution, even if there’s little chance of finding one that truly satisfies those who are suffering.

I’m on record for being a big fan of genre flexibility; there’s a lot of value in harnessing the tropes of one genre for use under the auspices of another. It’s one of the things that Winters is particularly good at, bringing together seemingly disparate elements with engaging seamlessness.

It’s certainly the case here, with Winters taking the framework of the courtroom drama and introducing an assortment of differing flavors and ideas to create something different. And as the narratives progress, those new flavors ebb and flow – sometimes, everything seems rather straightforward, while at other points, things get … weird – subtly and not-so-subtly altering the landscape with abject smoothness, taking the reader along for the ride.

There’s something scary about emptiness, about the idea that whatever spark it is that makes us us can be extinguished. And if that fundamental spark can go out, who’s to say it was ever truly alight in the first place? Wesley is a ghost made flesh, a wandering golem moving through the world with metronomic absence. He haunts every page of this book, his presence shuffling through every action and interaction undertaken. The loss that he represents – and how it irrevocably alters the worlds and worldviews of those close to him – is frightening in both its reality and its unknowableness.

“The Quiet Boy” is quietly propulsive, if that makes sense – there’s no flashiness, even with the assorted reveals and surprises sprinkled liberally throughout. Too often, one can FEEL the effort of a writer to push the pace, but that’s not the case here. Winters sweeps us up without us even knowing we’ve been swept – it’s the kind of book you fall into, only to reemerge pages later wondering where the time went.

Part of that immersion is born of the people we meet. Jay Shenk is a fascinating figure, a man who seemingly embodies all that is wrong with the legal profession. Yet he is ALSO a crusader of sorts, in his own way. Yes, he is motivated by the money, but it is not his sole motivation. He believes (or at least believes he believes) in justice. He seeks to do right by his clients even as he (hopefully) profits from their relationship. He is charming in a too-shiny sort of way and brims over with love for his son Ruben. Overall, he seems to be a good guy … but it’s complicated.

Ruben, for his part, offers an engaging dichotomy as well. The teenaged boy we meet in 2008 is full of hope, a smart young man who idolizes his father to the detriment of other parts of his life. The twentysomething Ruben of 2019 is a much sadder, more cynical person – someone continuously dealing with the emotional aftermath of seeing an idol fall. The adventures of that latter Ruben in particular tie in beautifully with the complexity of that particular father-son relationship.

And through it all walks Wesley Keener, pulling his family (and others) along in the wake of his ceaseless circling.

“The Quiet Boy” delights in its own mysteries, answering questions with other questions and endowing the proceedings with an entertaining opacity. It is a story of legal exploits, to be sure, but it also a story of fathers and sons, of the dual prices of pride and obsession and of the abstract nature of the self. We all contain multitudes … until we don’t.

Last modified on Tuesday, 08 June 2021 14:41

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