It’s always difficult to read a book about a place you know well without second guessing the book’s author, looking for narrative bumps or subtle hints that the writer just doesn’t get his or her subject matter.
When I opened up Christopher Bollen’s new murder mystery, “Orient,” just out from HarperCollins this May, I was thoroughly prepared to find every mistake grating, every attempt to explain the folks of the North Fork just all-out wrong.
It was easy at the start of reading this book to do just that, when the main character, a young man just released into the world from a life in foster care who’s taken on the name Mills Chevron, is taken to Orient by a kind Manhattanite who’s looking for help cleaning out his old family home at the end of the summer season.
In that opening sequence, Mills and his benefactor, Paul Benchley, pass down roads filled with boarded-up motels and the gas station in Orient has already closed for the season — neither seemed to ring true for the North Fork just after Labor Day. The orientation of water bodies as they reach the end of Orient is just, well, disorienting. Even the narrative thread about how locals feel usurped by New Yorkers seemed reductive and just boring.
But I was the one who was wrong, and by the fourth chapter I’d changed my mind. This is a tightly wrought, insightful and astute story that, while it takes a novelist’s license when it comes to mood, even makes the Orient water main debate of half a decade ago seem suspenseful and exciting — a feat that North Fork journalists only wish we could have accomplished.
Bollen does a good job addressing this conflict in his acknowledgements:
“While this novel is entirely fictional and I’ve made a beautiful village on the North Fork far darker than its reality, I want to thank the residents of Orient — weekenders and year-rounders alike — for their kindness and patience during my years of research and writing.”
The writing is spooky and finely tuned in the way of the best suspense novels, beginning with these captivating opening lines:
“This is how I first saw you, Long Island, on a map in the front seat of Paul Benchley’s car. Like the body of a woman floating in New York harbor. It still amazes me that no one else sees the shape of a woman in that island sprawled along the coastline, her legs the two beach-lined forks that jut out to sea when the land splits, her hips and breasts the rocky inlets of oyster coves, her skull broken into the boroughs of New York City.”
Within days of Mills’ appearance in Orient, people begin dying, beginning with the caretaker who had keys to every house in town. His keys also turn up missing. Since the story is told primarily from Mills’ perspective, it’s relatively clear to readers that he isn’t the killer. But many people in Orient believe him to be guilty, except for a young, recently-married artist named Beth Shepherd, who grew up in Orient but had recently returned home from working in Manhattan.
The two pair up in an attempt to solve the crimes, through a thick web of local feuds, long-simmering resentments, a slew of motives that could be ascribed to any one of their neighbors, and an expanding circle of murders in their midst.
This book isn’t a page-turner in the classic sense — it doesn’t leave you with a cliffhanger at the end of each chapter in an attempt to keep you reading. It respects the reader far more than that. It keeps you reading out of genuine curiosity, stumped just as profoundly as the sleuths in the story, wanting to know just what is going on.
As I mentioned, I began reading this book looking for the local things Bollen gets wrong. I was surprised to find that there are so many things he gets right, like this passage describing the manager of the Seaview Inn, based loosely on the Soundview Inn in Greenport.
“She spoke the language of the east, the tongue of the lost tribe of Eastern Long Island, a tuneless birdcall not unlike a dropped metal lid revolving on a floor. When exactly had that accent faded from the local speech? Could younger Long Islanders even understand her?”
Language has changed out here — and anyone who’s spent more than a couple years out here has met a few people like my departed grandparents in Jamesport, whose way of speaking just doesn’t exist anymore, but was truly the accent of Eastern Long Island not too long ago.
In other passages, Bollen’s portrayal of Orient residents’ attitude toward the local newspaper, The Suffolk Times, seems right on: their reporters and photographers lurk in the doorways of Poquatuck Hall, waiting to scoop a story that only they are reporting on anyway; their front page might have a picture of a little girl getting her face painted on it, while the accompanying story is one of a gruesome car crash, or worse, a murder.
But what I liked most about this novel was the portrayal of the artists who’ve made Orient home, including Beth Shepherd’s husband, Gavril Cartagi, a Romanian sculptor who specializes in creations made from hot tar and the bones of dead animals.
“He took his art so seriously it frightened him. Every day he knelt at his own temple and slit his throat as an offering. He experimented in bulletproof glass, took pliers to steel sheets, deconstructed lightbulbs, and stripped wires from extension cords, trying to achieve an awkward, brutal poetry through the broken industrial equipment. Occasionally he invited friends, curators and older artists to his closet, subjecting them to the obligatory mutually misunderstood jargon he had learned in his months in New York. “It’s about a paradigmatic shift in value, and, um, working-class labor directed against finished production, and, err, dispersion instead of the authority of closure. ” His Romanian accent gave the lecture a kind of coarse conviction. He hated, but began to agree with, the words he was speaking.”
There’s been some speculation in the media that the title of “Orient” is a play on Mills Chevron’s sexual orientation, but the way this gay lead character is written, his sexual orientation is just a matter-of-fact part of his life — one that he neither apologizes for nor makes a big deal of. And in the end, this story isn’t about a gay man in Orient. That story would be just too ordinary for a book whose twists and turns transcend any political statement.