The Night Country begins with a seductive invitation: "Come then, come with us, out into the night... come stalk the dark back roads and stand outside the bright houses, calm as murderers in the yard, quiet as deer."
It's Cabbage Night, the night before Hallowe'en in Avon, Connecticut, and you've just been invited to spend some quality time with Marco and Toe and Danielle, beginning on this cool autumn night that "smells of dust and coriander on the wind."
"It's the best time of year up here," Marco tells us - "witch hunts and woodsmoke... a 'new' England... veined with black rivers and massacres."
Marco and Danielle and Toe are three sweet, feisty, and very likeable teens, or at least they were until last Hallowe'en when, joyriding around the back roads, tired after working at their menial jobs, but happy just being together - "wanting the night to last forever" - they die in a horrific accident. Also in the car are Kyle, their bud-dealing Goth pal, and Tim, Danielle's sweet, introspective boyfriend.
Part of Kyle survives the accident, but with brain damage so severe that his personality, his prickly rebelliousness, is deadened. "Imagine diving off a five story building and landing on your face," suggests Marco. "Now imagine getting better." Kyle's nose and cheeks and forehead are prostheses - "only his chin is the same, and his hands."
Tim, Danielle's boyfriend, is the only one to survive the accident physically intact, but he's lost everything - all of the friendship and love that gave his life its meaning. Plagued by loss and survivor's guilt, he no longer feels any sense of belonging to - or in - the world.
More than the dead, these living victims haunt Officer Brooks, the police officer who initiates the high speed chase that precipitates the accident, but it's the dead who mess with Brooksie's head, sitting, invisible, in his kitchen teasing his dogs to make them bark - egging him on to commit the unspeakable - "We've seen him hang up his gun in slow motion, deliberate as a horror flick, and only Toe's twisted enough to make the holster swing, a cheesy temptation." Toe's ghost is twitching for vindication and revenge - he was the one behind the wheel, seemingly responsible for his own death as well as his friends'.
Danielle's ghost tries desperately to soothe Tim's appalling loneliness, and to fend off his desire to join her - "This must be how Dylan Klebold felt," Tim thinks on the heartbreaking anniversary of the accident - "knowing he was going to school the next day and never coming home." And Marco narrates it all for us with a kind of edgy detachment as the six characters are compelled to act out the final scenes of their intimately enmeshed lives and deaths.
Loneliness and isolation stalk through the pages of The Night Country as Kyle's mom struggles with the pity she can't abide and the fear of being perceived as a monster if she tries to move beyond her grief to resume a normal life, and Officer Brooks struggles to atone for the one tragic mistake that he made too late in his career and his life to forgive himself. Tim is a pariah now - the kids at school see his dead friends as legends, and Tim as an anomaly - not a lucky survivor, but a victim, the other one who should have died.
The book ends in a cataclysmic liebestodt of vindication and vengeance, remembrance and redemption, and in its final paragraph answers Marco's poignant question, "Where would we be if love ended at death?"
The emotional impact of this book belies its brevity. As with much of what Mr. O'Nan writes, I had a good cry reading it - several of them, in fact. The weird part was, my box of tissues kept disappearing and then turning up someplace that I knew I hadn't left it. Toe, probably. He'd be twisted enough.