Everyone has suffered through a house guest from hell -- the guy who insinuates himself into the very fabric of your furniture and just won't leave. Few of us, however, have been tracked down in another country by such a tormenter, only to be occupied once again. This is the hilarious predicament of Emil Halldorsson, the finicky, misanthropic narrator of Bragi Ólafsson's American debut.
Returning home to Iceland from a trip to London, Emil is caught off guard by a visit from Havard Knutsson, whose very name makes him nauseated. A house-sit they once shared ended badly. Several pets were killed, and Emil became so desperate to be rid of Havard that he paid him to leave. Amused, Havard then bargained for more.
But now Havard has broken into Emil's home, thinking his onetime friend is out. Emil scuttles under the bed, but as the hours tick by it becomes clear Havard will not be deterred. He plays Emil's records, answers Emil's phone, drinks Emil's whiskey and invites one after another of Emil's friends over to the house for an impromptu party.
Unfolding in Reykjavik over a very long winter day, "The Pets" reads like an Icelandic "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," but with a quirky, far more palpable sense of menace. Havard did, after all, bury a rabbit in cement; he may have committed a series of assaults in Sweden before landing in a mental institution. He is charming only for the purpose of manipulation.
As the book progresses and Emil's thoughts spiral out of control, the playing field shifts. Havard might be a bully, but he is also being awfully kind to the men and women who start gathering at Emil's house. He has even returned with two items -- a copy of "Moby Dick," and the model of an antique sailing vessel -- which he "borrowed" from the home that he and Emil watched over. Perhaps he has merely returned with an olive branch in hand.
As in the books of Patricia Highsmith, what begins as a slightly exaggerated everyday situation expands into a story of subtle psychological mystery. By altering points of view, and tuning in to the river of talk that comes out of Havard, Olafsson cleverly makes us doubt our narrator. Maybe he is the problem? Maybe he really should give Havard the benefit of the doubt? It's a fascinating reversal, and a brilliant re-creation of the mental flip-flop that allows house guests from hell to turn their hosts into pliable pets, and to stay on and on and on.
John Freeman is completing a book on the tyranny of e-mail.