Ill Will

nolead begins By Dan Chaon


458 pp. $28

nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by

Ron Charles

By now, we should all be on guard against Dan Chaon, but there's just no effective defense against this cunning writer.

Ill Will

revolves around Dustin Tillman, a 41-year-old psychologist who recently lost his wife to cancer.

His brother, Rusty, has been exonerated after almost 30 years in prison. He was convicted of killing their parents, along with their aunt and uncle, in a trial that hinged on sensational testimony - from Dustin - of sexual abuse and occult rituals. A fraternal reunion is the last thing Dustin wants right now - not only because he can't shake the sense of Rusty's malevolence, but also because he can't recall what happened on the night of those murders.

The difficulty of separating fact from fantasy, history from memory, pierces the heart of this novel. Chaon, who lost his own wife - the writer Sheila Schwartz - in 2008, captures the obscuring effects of grief with extraordinary tenderness. But he also creates a literary thriller that germinates more terror than sorrow. There's something irresistibly creepy about this story, which ventures into illicit places of the mind.

In the novel's most febrile moments, the pages break into three columns of text, so we experience these horrors from different but parallel perspectives. It's all part of Chaon's ingenious design that makes us participate in this family's collapse.

As Dustin tries to maintain his psychology practice, he's increasingly concerned by what his just-released brother might do. Perhaps it's that alarm that makes him susceptible to the entreaties of one of his patients, who wants him to help solve some drowning deaths the police have written off as accidental. Slowly, then more quickly, Dustin abandons his professional distance and throws himself into an investigation that relies on the same dubious psychological theory that convicted his brother three decades earlier. Caught up in this amateur sleuthing, he doesn't notice that his younger son is slipping into heroin addiction.

If all this sounds chaotic, it's meant to, and the book's complicated structure - jumping back and forth in time and between narrators - exacerbates that disorientation. But Chaon's great skill is his ability to re-create that compulsive sense in nightmares that we're just about to figure everything out - if only we tried a little harder, moved a little faster.

Chaon's novel walks along a garrote stretched taut between Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred Hitchcock. By the time we realize what's happening, we've gone too far to turn back. We can only inch forward into the darkness, bracing for what might come next.

This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.