The Reconstructionist by Nick Arvin

Few books packed the punch that Nick Arvin‘s Articles of War did for me.  I really enjoyed it and was fortunate enough to have the author participate in a Q&A as well.  So I was excited about the release of his latest novel The Reconstructionist.

It turned out to be a very interesting blend of psychological mystery, literary and philosophical exploration and road trip story.  This is not a fast paced thriller by any means but it does pack an emotional punch and there is an undercurrent of tension that drives the story forward.

More after the jump.

First, a little about Arvin:

Nick Arvin is an American engineer and writer. Born in North Carolina, he was raised in Michigan, and graduated from the University of Michigan and Stanford University with degrees in mechanical engineering, and from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has worked in forensic engineering and accident reconstruction.

And with that in mind, the plot blurb:

At a loose end after college, Ellis Barstow drifts back to his home town and a strange profession: reconstructing fatal traffic accidents. He seems to take to the work immediately , and forms a bond with his boss and mentor, John Boggs, an intriguing character of few but telling words.

Yet Ellis is harbouring a secret. He was drawn to the reconstructionist’s grisly world by the fatal crash that killed his half-brother Christopher and that still haunts him; in fact his life has been shaped by car accidents. Boggs, in his exacting way, would argue that ‘accident’ is not the right word, that if two cars meeting at an intersection can be called an accident then anything can – where we live, what we do, even who we fall in love with.

For Ellis these things are certainly no accident. And he harbours a second, more dangerous secret, one that threatens to blow apart the men’s lives and which, as the story’s quiet momentum builds, leads to a desperate race towards confrontation, reconciliation and survival.

As the above indicates, there is a mystery of a sort at the heart of the plot but the focus is really on the relationships and each character’s struggle to make sense of them; and to understand how they got to where they are in life and in these relationships.

Arvin clearly used his extensive knowledge of accident reconstruction to build a convincing plot element and hook.  You are quickly pulled into the world of accidents and the very technical process of trying to make scientific sense of these seemingly random events.  The human explanations and testimonies are not reliable so investigators are forced to fall back on the science to bring some semblance of order and meaning to the accidents they study (pushed and pulled by lawyers and insurance companies). They attempt to explain what actually happened but of course guilt and innocence hover in the background.

And you can’t really remove the human element from the accidents and humans look for things like meaning, intention, fate.  Ellis, Boggs and Heather are in a psychological sense careening towards each other at very high speeds.  Is what happens an accident?  Is it fate? And, Arvin asks, is there really such a thing as an accident?  Can we escape the choices we have made and the events that make up our lives?

I noted above that the novel is a blend of psychological mystery, literary and philosophical exploration and road trip story.  It leans heavy on the literary and psychological/philosophical side in my opinion.  In particular the middle section of the book, the road trip part, is heavy on psychological and philosophical exploration and lean on plot.  It shares its feel with the sleep deprived constant driving of Ellis.

Ellis is trying to deal with all of the pressure that builds up in his life – from his family, his career, his relationship with Heather and Boggs. He seeks to be more intentional more rational.  But as his life seems to be splintering around him he can’t bring the cold rationality of his work to his life – so he takes refuge in his skills as a reconstructionist.  But will this destroy the one thing he cares about?

As you can see, the story is driven more by questions than answers.  But if you find the literary and psychological exploration of these questions interesting then I think you will enjoy the novel.  If you want a neat plot and steady style and structure than you might be frustrated with this one.  I am not sure it all works together seamlessly, or that the attempt to build a literary novel around a made for TV type plot hook like accident reconstruction quite works, but I found the characters and their emotions interesting and the questions explored worth thinking about.  Enough of it “worked” that I enjoyed it but I have a feeling reactions will vary widely by taste.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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