Secrets, lies and obsessions

Novel

November 06, 2005|By SARAH WEINMAN | SARAH WEINMAN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Ordinary Heroes

Scott Turow

Farrar, Straus and Giroux / 368 pages

When someone tells a story, the first instinct is to accept it at face value and not look too closely at how well it holds up. All it takes is a single event to cast doubt on the entire story from start to finish.

Scott Turow's new novel (his first since 2002's Reversible Errors) wears the outward trappings of a spirited wartime tale - and does so quite well - but he's more interested in the lies people tell to spare their loved ones pain, and the secrets they keep in order to survive another day. Material like this should have made for a standout effort, but the result ends up curiously unfulfilling. Paradoxically, the fault may lie in the way Turow constructed this particular story - one he says he has longed to tell for several decades.

Ordinary Heroes opens with death, and its lingering aftermath. Retired Chicago-area journalist Stewart Dubinsky is arranging the funeral of his father, David Dubin, when he discovers a packet of letters dating from World War II. The shocks come one by one: a former fiancee, a court-martial, a brief imprisonment. Who was this David Dubin, and why did he never speak of his past?

Though Stewart's mother, a Holocaust survivor, blocks her son's questions whenever possible, years of training and a compulsive personality serve Stewart well in his quest to discover his hidden family history. His search leads him to a Connecticut nursing home to speak with Barrington Leach, David's former lawyer and unexpected keeper of a novel-length series of accounts David wrote of his court-martial. After reading David's account of the events leading to his incarceration, Stewart realizes his father was made of far more passionate material than his role of loving husband and distant father suggested. The letters paint David as more a flesh-and-blood character than Stewart knew in life and spur him to dig into troubling mysteries that haunted his father for more than 60 years - at the potential cost of Stewart's memories and his family's wishes.

Ordinary Heroes aims for great heights, but Turow errs in allotting the bulk of the novel to David's narrative. What should have been a poignant, vivid retelling of doomed love, buried secrets and raw emotion is instead overly coincidental and oddly flat. David's drifting away from his fiancee, Grace, is supposed to resonate but feels matter-of-fact. His quest to find and capture Robert Martin, an OSS officer whose loyalties seem mysterious, deflates because they meet again and again before the final, almost anticlimactic, revelation. What saves these sections from complete banality is Gita Lodz, a Polish resistance fighter (and the object of David's obsession). She's no Mata Hari or flailing damsel, but something more ambiguous and thus more believable.

Stewart only appears in short narrative chunks but is the more nuanced, more morally questioning, protagonist. Unfortunately, he's not given enough opportunity to show how his discovery of David's earlier life affects him and others. His children make a throwaway remark that "he's on crack," and his wife of 30 years leaves him, but the emotional fallout is virtually ignored because it's told to the reader, not shown. Perhaps there simply wasn't enough pain and depth to divide equally between protagonists.

Ordinary Heroes is by no means a failure: It can't be with a writer as talented as Turow. But sometimes distance affords a greater emotional impact than immediacy, and this story might have worked more effectively with complete hindsight.

Sarah Weinman's crime fiction column appears monthly in the The Sun. Visit her at www.sarahweinman.com.

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