From Away by David Carkeet is one of the more interesting crime novels that I’ve read this year. I call it a crime novel (and it is one) because solving the mystery, to the extent there is one, isn’t the thing but some of the crimes that we are talking about here are on a much smaller scale including a car accident, a case of mistaken/assumed identity and a foiled murder plot of sorts. So this one doesn’t sit at the dark end of the spectrum by any stretch. The cast of quirky characters are almost a North East US version of the residents of Cicely Alaska and the Vermont small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business is as much a character as the characters are. This is a crime novel written as much for laughs as any other reason and is largely successful because of the main character.
It’s been said in other reviews of From Away so I won’t spend too much time on the observation, but even if it’s been said elsewhere it still bears mentioning because it’s true, Denny Braintree is a literary descendent of Ignatius C. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces. If you bear with me for a minute I promise that I’ll balance out that already echoed observation with a more original and unsounded one. Denny is many things, arrogant and a fool among them. He takes on a sour disposition simply because it annoys people. The character is hypnotic and a joy to read.
Here’s the thing though, that original (probably not) observation I promised. Denny is a writer for a train hobbyist publication and carries a certain eye for specificity, detail and background that, in the eyes of others – including other hobbyists and his editor – when covering the layouts of others and in the creation of his own train displays borders on the obsessive. Before a character can be placed in a scene for example its entire backstory and history must be known. Other hobbyists, who are unable to answer probing questions about what to them is probably the most innocuous part of their layout are inferior to the superior intellect and design building skills that Denny believes he possesses.
And why do we care about any of that Brian?
I’ll tell you why. About half way or so through the book there is a brief chapter opening scene that lays bare the central conceit of the book and provides the reader, unannounced, with a brief man behind the curtain moment. Little hints had been dropped here and there and this scene was the biggest of them all. So I’ll tell it to you straight. The entire novel, and all of the characters in it, are a part of an ongoing narrative constructed by the character Denny Braintree to act out in his own train set layout. You see Denny Prime is unhappy with his life, or at least unfulfilled. So he throws himself into his hobby to the exclusion of all others and creates an elaborate and full world of his creation in which to act out a different life and cast other people in different roles. And the whole thing is set up in his basement. Homer is one of the layout avatars of Denny and Denny’s wife Sarah is cast in a different role which underscores the disparity in their “real world” relationship.
So it’s interesting when others speak of Denny’s growth, or lack thereof; or the arc of the story since there isn’t one to speak of since Denny Prime is the true main character. I suppose the whole thing could be taken as analogous to the life of a writer but that’s just a guess.
So if you give From Away a try and are enjoying the characters, the story and the locale remember this second layer of the story.
Denny Braintree, a wisecracking loner devoted to model trains, finds himself stranded in late-winter Vermont. His night at the hotel begins with promise, but then his prospective one-night stand walks out on him. Leaving town, Denny is mistaken for lookalike Homer Dumpling, a popular native son who mysteriously disappeared from town three years earlier. Instead of correcting the mistake, Denny dons his new identity as easily as a Vermonter’s winter fleece, and a good thing too—the woman he had hoped to sleep with has turned up dead, and Denny is the chief suspect.
As Denny tries to unravel the mystery, he struggles to hide his true identity from Homer’s increasingly suspicious circle of family and friends, including Homer’s prickly girlfriend. In Denny, Carkeet has crafted a fast-talking bumbler whose instinct for survival will face the ultimate challenge, with readers cheering him on all the way.