As with many a good thriller, things start out calmly enough in “Reunion at Red Paint Bay" (Other Press), the psychological novel by George Harrar of Wayland, Massachusetts. It’s a regular evening in the small town of Red Paint, Maine. Simon Howe, the easygoing editor of the town newspaper, and his wife Amy, a psychiatric therapist, have enjoyed a relaxing dinner out. A hometown boy, Simon had left Red Paint to pursue a big city journalism career, but returned to take care of his ailing parents and then stayed to rescue the town’s failing newspaper. He discovered he didn’t really miss big city life; he and Amy preferred a more bucolic setting to raise their son Davey.
Though local merchants have tried to market it as “the friendliest town in Maine,” this out-of-the-way burg overlooking Red Paint Bay has never become a tourist mecca: “People didn’t just happen upon Red Paint. If you took the spur road off the interstate, you probably already lived there and knew where you were going.”
Trouble is soon afoot, and the first sign that life will be less ordinary is when Simon, acting on a civic-minded impulse, hires David Rigero, a recent ex-con, as the new pressman. (For no discernible plot reason, David has the same first name as Simon and Amy’s son, which gets confusing.) Rigero was convicted of rape, and Amy, who has treated many rape victims in her therapy practice, is horrified that of all the people to whom her husband could have offered a second chance, this is the man he chose to bring into their town.
Simon waves away her concerns, saying Rigero “made a mistake and served his sentence.” Amy’s response is, “Women who are raped don’t get a few years’ term they can serve and then they’re free.”
The second sign of trouble arrives in the mail. As weeks go by, Simon receives an unsigned postcard, and then another, and another—each from a different locale. The anonymously written cards have odd messages like “What good are funerals? They offer no solace.” and “What lies do you tell yourself about yourself?”
These unwelcome deliveries are soon followed by strange disturbances in town. Offensive graffiti appears on the front of the newspaper building. Someone tries to get into the Howes’ house when Davey is home alone. A stranger stalks Davey and Simon through a house of mirrors at the local carnival. (In an otherwise original novel, this scene of multiple images and wrong turns seems stale, reminiscent of too many cinematic thrillers where the innocents emerge safe but shaken onto the fairgrounds, knowing that their sheltered world has been breached.)
Most episodes are fateful near-misses in the best tradition of writers like Patricia Highsmith; they do no physical harm, but touch off tremors that first rattle the emotional scaffolding of Simon and Amy’s family life, and then their marriage. The increasingly unsettling story moves ahead in alternating chapters of two very different voices, and views, that ultimately reveal a life-changing incident that happened on Simon’s graduation night some 25 years before. One viewpoint is Simon’s. The other is that of Paul Chambers, a hometown boy who also left but, unlike Simon, stayed away. Until now.
Paul’s chapters float by in a dreamily disturbed first-person present tense; he’s in the world but is mostly a hyper, self-absorbed observer of it. Paul is a rather unlikable, possibly unsound, individual. He’s dragging an agonizing grief around with him, which seems to have changed his personality from simply annoying to frightfully menacing. His wife Jean could never get beyond a trauma that occurred on the night of her high school graduation; perhaps a disastrous romantic encounter, perhaps—a rape. As Paul sees it, her assailant has enjoyed a carefree life while Paul and Jean endured a tragically troubled marriage.
Chapter by chapter, it becomes more difficult to determine whom to trust. In Harrar’s hands, this is a pleasurable dilemma. Is Paul a truth-seeker or simply unhinged? Simon is an unflappable business manager, but does his affable manner mask a moral character flimsy as an August breeze?
Paul’s actions start to push Simon further and further away from the self he knows, a decent husband and father, and toward a narcissistic schemer. Simon accuses his level-headed wife of being “hysterical” about his chumminess with Rigero. He conspires with his young son to shield some recent events from Amy, and tells Davey in a boys-will-be-boys way that he doesn’t want Amy to worry, and that she’d just lecture both of them, anyway.
Harrar is well-versed at creating distinct characters. He is the author of short stories, the mystery “The Spinning Man,” and numerous young adult books, including the historical novel “The Trouble with Jeremy Chance.”
To glean some truth from both Simon’s and Paul’s realities, “Reunion at Red Paint Bay” explores some weighty questions: How much can memories be trusted? How long a comet tail of consequences can one act spark? Whatever happened on that long-ago graduation night wasn’t good, and it unfurled a thread of events strong enough to reach through the decades and upend lives.
The finale is unexpected and well-earned, fostering intriguing paths for each of the main characters, well past the last page. It’s the opposite of tying up all the loose ends into a shiny bow. For this kind of story, that is a welcome gift.
Carol Iaciofano’s book reviews and op-ed columns have appeared in publications including The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, and The Hartford Courant. Carol is also a co-author of the pop culture computer anthology “Digital Deli.”
An excerpt from George Harrar's "Reunion at Red Paint Bay”:
Simon didn’t tell Amy about the stranger in the Hall of Mirrors. What would he say, that a man in there spoke of Davey as a “beautiful boy”? She might get hysterical, if he could use that word, and not let their son out of her sight.
Simon steered them down the midway toward the exit. Halfway there he said, “That’s it for tonight, kiddo. Mom and I both have work tomorrow.”
“Just one more ride,” Davey said in his familiar pleading voice. No matter what the occasion, he always asked for once more.
Simon glanced at the amusements within eyeshot—the Ferris wheel, the Catapult, and just a little farther ahead, the Teacups, closest to the exit. “Okay, you can go on the Teacups once, then we leave.” He handed over two dollars and Davey ran ahead, with both of them keeping him in sight. When they reached the entrance the boy was already circling the ride, picking his seat. They saw him open the metal restraining door and climb in. In a moment, the Teacups began to move.
“I never liked this ride,” Amy said as she slipped her hand in Simon’s and leaned on the railing. “Too much bumping into people.”
“That’s the point,” he said, “bumping into your friends as hard as you can.”
They watched as the different colored cups spun around on their axes, and the whole ride spun as well. It was dizzying to look at.
“I’ve lost track,” Amy said. “Which one is Davey in?”
Simon pointed to the left, but by the time she turned there, the car had rotated away. “The red one, I think, coming toward us.”
The red teacup spun in front of them, and there was Davey shouting at them, his face contorted into a crazy grin, his arms waving. Next to him, his mouth open as if frozen that way, was a man. The teacup spun away.
Amy squeezed Simon’s arm. “Did you see him?”
“Yes,” Simon said, “he looked like he was having fun.”
“I meant the man. There’s a grown man riding the Teacups with Davey.”
They focused on the red cup, and when it came toward them again, only the back was visible, no faces. Amy pulled Simon sideways a few steps to get a better view, but in a moment, it was gone.
The Teacups picked up speed. They flew around the circle and spun on their axes. Davey came into view again, this time flung toward the outside of the cup, pinned against the man, almost in his lap.
“He’s in plain view, Amy.”
In a minute the ride began to slow. Simon watched the red cup, trying to judge where it would stop, and moved counter-clockwise around the railing to meet it. Just a few yards ahead of him Davey jumped to the ground. The man was just behind him.
“Davey?” Simon called, but the boy didn’t hear, or didn’t let on that he did. He walked with the man toward the exit on the far side of the ride, looking up once or twice, as if talking. When he passed through the gate he turned and came running toward them. “Can I do it again, Dad?”
“Who was that in the car with you?” Simon said.
Davey glanced back. “I don’t know, some man.”
“Did he touch you?”
“It looked like he was touching you,” Amy said, coming up behind them.
“It’s the Teacups, Mom. You can’t help touching people.”
“Did he say anything?”
“I don’t know, he was yelling like me. Everybody was yelling. Can’t I ride again, Mom?”
“We’re going home,” she said, taking Davey’s hand, but he yanked it away.
“What are you doing?”
“It’s time to go,” Simon said, giving their son a little nudge.
This article was originally published on June 17, 2013.
This program aired on June 17, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.