Adam O’Fallon Price’s second novel couldn’t be more different from his first. “The Grand Tour” was a rollicking road trip of a book that charted the misadventures of a washed-up writer granted an unexpected lease of life and his sole superfan. In sharp contrast, “The Hotel Neversink” is a roomier and more ambitious affair, packing in a large cast, encompassing 100 years of family history and juggling a variety of narrative styles, genres and registers. Price takes big risks that allow him to perform dizzying feats.
The Neversink is founded in 1931 by Polish immigrant and innkeeper Asher Sikorsky. Over the next two decades he transforms his hotel into the ultimate Catskills resort, a sumptuous palace that attracts and caters to a wealth of luminaries, from athletes to entertainers to heads of state. Before he dies, he entrusts the Neversink to his daughter, Jeanie. But that legacy proves to be a poisoned chalice when a boy disappears from the hotel.
So begins a new, tumultuous era, which brings catastrophe and heartache for Asher’s descendants and other individuals connected with the seemingly cursed Neversink. Starting with Jeanie in 1950 and trawling the years to the present, Price devotes each chapter to a different character at a different moment in time.
We meet the black sheep of the family, Jeanie’s brother Joseph, a past-his-prime comedian who burns out and breaks down on the hotel’s main stage. Hannah, a maid, succumbs regularly to “the sick fever” and steals from the rooms she cleans, but when she is caught in the act by a lonely housewife she receives sympathy and help — albeit in return for sexual favors. Mr. Javits, the hotel detective, doubles his efforts when more children go missing, only to come up against further dead ends.
Several embattled characters are allotted more than one chapter. When they reappear at later stages, we see how they have coped with their respective ghosts or demons. Jeanie’s son Len grows up and takes over the hotel, but his plan to revive its flagging fortunes has disastrous consequences, personally and professionally. His relative Alice becomes a more damaged adult, forever haunted by the memory of her 9-year-old self exploring the hotel in search of a hidden door — and then finding one beneath the stairs.
Some of Price’s chapters read like stand-alone stories, such as the one on Len’s wife, Rachel, and her encounter with a married man in New York.
Eventually, Price returns to the mystery at the heart of the novel, dealing out shocks in his denouement by unveiling the identity of the killer and disclosing the ramifications of a dark family secret.
Despite a grisly discovery and the odd spooky presentiment, “The Hotel Neversink” is not as creepy as it should be. But what it lacks in chills it more than makes up for in gripping family drama and masterful storytelling.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Hotel Neversink
By: Adam O'Fallon Price.
Publisher: Tin House, 279 pages, $15.95.