SCHRODER. By Amity Gaige. Twelve. 269 pages. $21.99.
The heart, as Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert says in “Lolita,” is “a hysterical, unreliable organ.”
Amity Gaige’s third novel, “Schroder,” also deals in hysterical hearts and in shaky borders, especially the Nabokovian borderline between “the beastly and the beautiful.”
More to the point, Gaige creates a narrating hero, Eric Kennedy, who kidnaps his own daughter and takes her on a strange seven-day spree. The book at hand is a confession addressed to his wife, Laura (“my whip, my nation, my wife”) from a prison cell. Like Humbert Humbert, that other child abductor, Kennedy writes with one eye on the jury and the other eye on the truth. Is his a narrative of recognition and remorse? Or one more extravagant lie from a master manipulator? The beauty of “Schroder” is that we never really know. Gaige delivers us into a moral fog and leaves us to feel our way out.
Eric Kennedy’s center of gravity is an exaggerated American-ness. When he was a 5-year-old child, Kennedy and his father lied their way out of East Berlin, declaring his mother, very much alive at the time, to be dead. Eventually, they land in Dorchester, a working class suburb of Boston and a place where they are notably foreign.
At 14, Erik Schroder (his birth name) reinvents himself in the American way. On a summer camp application, he signs his name Eric Kennedy. Over the years, the Kennedy persona takes hold, and Schroder recedes. Kennedy’s chosen identity is lovingly constructed of desire and innuendo. (He plants himself in Cape Cod in the fictional town of Twelve Hills, “a stone’s throw from Hyannis Port,” and hints at a connection to the famous Kennedys.)
It’s not surprising that when his marriage falls apart and a custody battle heats up, Kennedy takes advantage of another American prerogative: the geographical cure. He hits the road with daughter Meadow in a spirit of adventure.
“The guilty mind,” he says, “accelerates, its pedal stuck.”
Eric Kennedy is a bona fide American con man, without a doubt. But is he also a loving father, even a contrite husband? The tale he spins is full of tonal complexity and rapid mood shifts. One minute he’s hiding Meadow in the trunk of his (stolen) car, with an eye to smuggling her across the Canadian border.
Another moment, he’s remembering carousel rides with Meadow and confiding, “I don’t think I was ever gladder of anything, that a daughter of mine might be in the midst of a happy childhood — that elusive gold standard, a ... miracle.” Yet, life is “endlessly procedural,” there are many steps to everything, and increasingly, Kennedy may be the very thing that impedes Meadow’s happiness.
Somehow, Eric Kennedy is never a full-on villain. He’s a glib and delusional fraud, but he’s also the remnant of a broken world. Early in the novel, his father tells him, “There is no such thing as forgetting.”
Kennedy pays a price for stashing away his old self. He stands as a warning: divided lives and loyalties can lead to a stalemate. Everything falls apart, dramatically, for Kennedy and Meadow, but something good may come of their trials.
Gaige allows us to loop among Kennedy’s voices and stray among his forgotten images without having to make definitive choices about him. If we are moved by Kennedy’s narration, it is probably his inability to stifle his desires, regulate his heart and solve his conflicts that draws us toward him.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.