'Invisible World': Obsession rules

January 05, 2003|By Dan Fesperman | By Dan Fesperman,Special to the Sun

The Invisible World, by John Smolens. Crown Publishing. 320 pages. $22.95.

Sam Adams has plenty to be gloomy about. His mother has just died. He is still haunted by the suicide of his drugged-out younger sister. And his father, a shadowy government operative who was almost never around as a dad and who almost certainly played a role in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, has suddenly re-appeared, just long enough to make away with mom's ashes. In addition, Sam's career is in the toilet, largely thanks to his recent magnum opus, a book in which the 40-something journalist tried unsuccessfully to prove his father's role in the assassination.

Or did he? Because suddenly an awful lot of mysterious people want to talk to him, mostly because they're looking for his dad. Then along comes Petra, a warm and sensual young woman who, for her own hidden reasons, might just as attracted to Sam's arcane memories as she is to his somewhat prickly personality.

Thus does author John Smolens set in motion his fourth novel, The Invisible World, a noir-ish literary thriller set mostly in the streets of Boston and the snug harbors of Cape Cod.

Sam Adams narrates the tale himself (and could there possibly be a better name for someone so closely tied to the lore of Boston?), and even with all his introspection and misfortune he comes across as a pleasant and engaging guide. His movements through the city set a tone like that of a film shot in grainy black and white. It is a portentous world of cold weather, low clouds and dark waters -- gloomy yet never quite crossing into gothic. His is a solitary stroll in which the more ponderous events of the past are always whispering just over his shoulder.

As Sam labors to elude his pursuers even as he attempts to track down his father, he must again dig deep into the past, both his own and his father's. While there are plenty of moments of high suspense along the way -- a few close shaves, a disappearance, a killing or two -- it is the slower moments that are more rewarding, often graced with pitch-perfect observations, such as this one about Sam's troubled sister, Abby: "Conversation with her was always like testing the ice on the pond -- she'd start out where it was safe and sidle out toward the middle, until the sheet would begin to crackle and boom, and she'd inch her way back toward shore."

At times, the book seems oddly underpopulated, as if half of Boston had left town while the main characters played out their roles. But this sparseness is at least partly due to the narrative mood. Sam has sealed himself off from so much of the workaday world that he appears to be going it alone, even when seated among thousands of fellow Red Sox fans at Fenway Park.

The novel contains many allusions to the various conspiracy theories surrounding the Kennedy assassination, but thankfully, it never comes across as trying to solve the mystery. It is far more a well-told tale about the way that obsessions -- with theories, with fathers, with failures -- tend to take over lives, sometimes several lives at once, and the manner in which the shadows of momentous events only seem to lengthen over time, cloaking an ever larger crowd in their darkness.

Dan Fesperman, a reporter for The Sun currently on leave, recently completed his second novel, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows, which will be published next year. His first book, Lie in the Dark, won a Dagger Award from the British Crime Writers' Association for the best first novel of 1999.

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