Monday, April 3, 2017
Review: "Ill Will" by Dan Chaon
My real job allows me a lot of down time during work hours, and to fill that down time, I became fascinated by YouTube videos that count down or dissect strange unexplained murders or disappearances. They both draw me in and give me the creeps, offering the kind of folklore that seems rather at home in my Midwestern setting but also a lot of dread as I put myself in the positions of the family members of the some of the victims and the horror of the unknown why of their pain. After reading his new novel, Ill Will, I can’t think of a better writer to fictionalize such feelings, and in doing so, he has produced his best book yet. While he is more known for his short stories (two out of the three failed to make a deep impression on me), I find his novels to be astounding works that carefully, impossibly mix genre elements and new American suburban malaise and emotional decay. They feel like thrillers, with the mysteries at the heart of all three of his novels, You Remind Me of Me, Await Your Reply and this one, being brilliantly laid out with reveals that are guaranteed to take your breath away, but not in the way of action or even violence, even though he doesn’t shy away from those aspect, but instead the reactions he gets come from the emotional decisions of his characters, whether they are revelatory, ones of betrayal or ones of self-deception, which is the corner stone of this book. The main character is Dustin Tillman, a psychologist living in Cleveland Ohio. In a fugue state (something the book brings up) after his wife’s death, two events, one from his past and present, threatened to pollute his mind and destroy the carefully constructed life he is sustaining. When he was thirteen in 1983, his parents were brutally killed in their home in Wyoming. Dustin told the police that his adopted brother, Rusty, was the culprit and he was given a life sentence. Due to DNA testing Rusty is exonerated and released from prison, a fact Dustin keeps from his sons Dennis and Aaron. Also, at around the same time, a patient of his named Aqil draws him into a supposed string of killing that involve the drowning deaths of drunk, white college males (loosely based on the Smiley Face Killer theory). The book shifts perspective often, sometime within the same page so it looks like newsprint, but each story thread is so engaging, the switches are smooth and feel appropriate. We learn about the events leading up to and after the murders from Dustin’s two cousins Kate and Wave, as well as the drug addled spiral that Aaron, Dustin’s youngest son takes after a friend also loses his mother and goes missing himself, leading to this book’s incredible final pages, which, much like Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, will haunt me, and hopefully you, for quite some time after. Filled with a palpable and humane kind of pain, filtered through a stranglehold of narrative threads, this is surely one of the best books of the year, written by one of our best writers.