Hidden Agenda

  • Article by: EMILY CARTER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 3, 2009 - 4:51 PM

A man returns to his hometown to begin a mysterious project.

Castle by J. Robert Lennon

Often, there is nothing more claustrophobic and irritating than spending time with an unreliable narrator. Knowing "facts" that the narrator doesn't or the truth while they lie requires patience; you have to sit on your hands until the required epiphany arrives, sometimes in dribs and drabs throughout the course of a few hundred pages. It's important then that, no matter what it says, the narrator's voice is worth listening to. Thankfully, J. Robert Lennon's protagonist's odd formal diction is hypnotic, even while we know he's spinning, concealing and misreading.

From the first moment we see Eric Loesch outside the ruined house he's bought in his childhood hometown, we know there's something off about him. Not only does he refuse to tell the real estate agent (and us) what he's doing there, but he misconstrues her in a manner that is offensive and surprisingly obtuse. Yet there's a dignity about him, a sense of tamped-down injury. It becomes clear that Loesch is a warrior, honorable and disciplined, but utterly at a loss in the civilian world.

As Loesch begins to renovate his house, we are drawn into the project with him. Lennon describes this self-reliant, competent man getting up early, driving into town, buying exactly the supplies he needs and doing a day's work on the roof or the porch. This should be slightly dull; instead, these passages hum like powerlines in the late-afternoon stillness. Loesch is a lean and upright presence, diligent, unassuming and dignified. He's also every bit as infuriating as he is admirable.

For one thing, he keeps his actions close and his reasons closer. Any friendly interest from the locals is met with reactions ranging from tight-mouthed demurral to outright rage. What is he doing, renovating an old house in one of those economically blighted Adirondack towns that people have fled for decades? What is he looking for on the long, solitary treks he takes into the uninviting woods around his house? The story comes out, of course, not in drabs, but in increasingly tense scenes of psychological abuse.

Lennon's subject is authority, and how it sculpts the psyche. Loesch reveals himself to be, in fact, just what he seems -- both honorable and dented, disciplined and damaged. We all know how much influence a strong adult figure can have on a child, and that child will always be father to the man. In this case, both the child and the adult are waiting in the woods and Eric Loesch, soldier, is going to meet them.

This book starts out intriguing; the upstate New York setting -- with its narrow, stone-fenced roads twisting into the darkling woods -- is perfectly pitched for a tale of anxiety. The rustling of wind through dead leaves quickly morphs into the sound of pages turning. It's Lennon's narrator, however --with his caginess, sudden rages and formal diction -- that makes the novel worth the money. There is something of Eric Loesch in a lot of men whose carriage speaks of discipline and solitude, decency and just a hint of doom.

Emily Carter is a writer in Minneapolis.

  • CASTLE

    By: J. Robert Lennon.

    Publisher: Graywolf Press, 229 pages, $22.

    Review: Lennon's dark tale of a prickly, tight-mouthed protagonist is gripping and disturbing.

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