Toward the beginning of Putney writer Craig Nova's eleventh novel, Cruisers, we're told a story that's more or less the book in miniature. Russell Boyd, a state trooper in southern Vermont, recalls a formative experience -- a tale his grandfather told him one dark night at the family's hunting camp. It's a war story that starts with the liberation of a German prison camp and ends with the grandfather's admonition, "So, do you see the essential horror? It is ungraspable... and once it starts... Why, you aren't going to do a thing but stare and turn away."
It's a moment that recalls Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, with Russell as the hapless Marlow absorbing poisonous truth about "the horror, the horror" from his grandfather's Kurtz. The problem with Nova's version of this moment -- and with Cruisers as a whole -- is that the extended build-up to the horror dwarfs the horror itself. Rather like a David Lynch film, Cruisers is a novel in foreshadowing -- its atmosphere, oily and ominous, ends up devouring part of its substance.
But what foreshadowing! Nova is a master of noir imagery -- the sights, sounds, smells and feel of foreboding. The first chapter pulls us instantly into the world of Russell Boyd as he patrols a desolate stretch of interstate, waiting for the moment when he'll have the bad luck to "come across someone who was the perfect expression of malice" (see excerpt).
When we meet Frank Kohler in the next chapter, we know that he will, given time, fit the bill. A lonely computer repairman with sordid memories -- his mother, a semi-prostitute, was murdered and dismembered -- Kohler reads ancient history and cruises Boston's Combat Zone, searching not for sex but for the adrenaline rush of confrontation. His credo comes from one of his mom's bad-news boyfriends: "Don't fight to fight. Fight to win."
Boyd and Kohler are cruisers in the spiritual night that pervades the novel, and Nova makes it clear that their trajectories will converge. While Russell dons body armor and stops speeders, Frank armors himself in a sleek black car that promises him the kind of freedom "you could only feel... at a hundred and ten."
Yet the protagonists are alike in seeking solace from women. Russell's girlfriend Zofia offers him passion and domestic comfort, but also an ultimatum: She doesn't want to be "a cop's widow." Kohler, meanwhile, avails himself of a mail-order-bride service to import Katryna, a mournful Muscovite with secrets of her own. Vermont being the neighborly place that it is, these characters' paths cross several times before they come together in the eruption of "malice" the novel promises from its first page. (The plot is loosely based on a 1997 incident in Colebrook, New Hampshire.)
Cruisers is told in third person from alternating perspectives; each chapter is labeled simply with a character's name. Yet within a single chapter, the perspective sometimes slithers disconcertingly from one mind to another. Because the characters have similar preoccupations -- mostly dark, with the occasional flicker of life-affirming epiphany -- Nova's technique has the effect of making them seem like varied expressions of a single, brooding personality.
This blurring effect is good for the novel's atmosphere, but perhaps not so good for the human tragedy underneath. While Nova can convey his characters' sense of loss, he has a harder time showing us what they have to lose. Russell and Zofia seem oddly adrift; they're people without solid backstories, who have portentous sex -- in the thick of a fox-hunt, no less -- but seldom banter or bicker about anything except the dangers of Russell's job.
The only character who seems fully realized is Frank Kohler. In the description of his childhood, Nova convincingly creates a world in which horror and normality have become one, so that Frank finds himself clinging to "darkness" as a last residue of his mother, "like the memory of a goodnight kiss, or her grand way of signing her name to a credit card chit she was never going to be able to pay."
At one point in Cruisers, Kohler's Russian bride muses, "Americans had no sense of tragedy, no belief in the finality of fate." The novel serves to refute this claim, for Nova has staged his clash of human beings as a clash of elemental forces -- light and darkness -- that might as well be gods. (Kohler even thinks he hears a "chorus" commenting on the action.)
Writing a modern tragedy is a lofty aim, and one Nova might have served better had he given us a stronger sense of the texture of ordinary life -- what these characters strive to salvage from the encroaching "horror." Still, Cruisers leaves us with indelible images of human anxiety, dread and loneliness that seem to take tangible form in the places people inhabit -- like the "dim light of [Frank Kohler's] childhood, which had a humming resonance to it, as though the things that had happened here were encoded not in memory so much as in a variety of vibration."