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Book review: Before you Know Kindness by Chris Bohjalian


Published October 27, 2004 at 4:00 a.m.

Purists are fascinating creatures. While most of us are content to live and let live, making continual small allowances for human flaws, they do their best to remake the world the way they believe it should be. Such is the case of Spencer McCullough, a central character in Vermont author Chris Bohjalian's new novel. The communications director of a high-profile animals-rights lobbying group called FERAL, Spencer dictates his wife's and daughter's diet and wardrobe -- meat and leather verboten -- and enlists his whole extended family to plant a garden at his mother-in-law's summer home in New Hampshire, the better to fulfill his dietary needs. Like PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk, to whom he bears more than a passing resemblance, Spencer might be accused of preferring animals to human beings, and he has the born-again fervor of a guilty conscience. (In a toothsomely grotesque passage, we learn that Spencer spent a summer in college carving up live lobsters for the tourist trade.)

Even readers who agree with Spencer's views will find him hard to like. But it's also hard to wish him ill, because when we meet Spencer on page 1, his shoulder has just been crushed into "thick, sloppy soup" by a .30-caliber bullet from a hunting rifle wielded by his own young daughter. As if that weren't enough, the deer Spencer strives to protect have devoured his vegetables. It's a bad day.

After opening the book with an attention-getting description of Spencer's shooting, Bohjalian immediately backtracks to show us how this came to pass. He introduces us to Spencer's wife Catherine's family, the Seton clan, who've gathered to enjoy a July weekend at the home of Nan, their indefatigable country-club matriarch. Nan has been playing surrogate mom to preteen granddaughters Charlotte -- Spencer and Catherine's precocious, preening offspring -- and Willow, her quieter cousin. The rifle arrives on the scene courtesy of Catherine's brother John, a Chittenden County public defender, who celebrated the recent birth of his son by taking hunting lessons.

But John's bucolic "vision of days alone in the woods with his son" is stymied by a stubborn bullet that jams in the chamber. When he carts the gun along to New Hampshire, hoping to consult a gunsmith, the recipe for disaster is almost complete. All it takes is volatile Charlotte, mistaking her dad for a deer plundering the dark garden, to turn the hairline fissures in the Seton family into gaping rifts.

Not only is Spencer now out a right arm, but his cronies at FERAL decide that his maiming is a ripe opportunity to sue the gun manufacturer and inveigh publicly against hunting. Cath-erine, who's been sneaking Slim Jims in a secret rebellion against her husband, finds herself forced to play nursemaid to him even as he threatens to drag her family into the limelight. John worries about being "crucified" in the lawsuit for his carelessness, while his daughter Willow faces a dilemma: Should she tell the adults what only she knows about Charlotte's state of mind on the night of the shooting?

Bohjalian painstakingly delineates the motives of each character, using an omniscient narrator to get beneath the surface. If we sympathize more with the hapless John, we also understand that Spencer has a secret, heartfelt reason for backing the lawsuit: "He wanted to make clear to the world that this travesty was not his daughter's fault." And we know that, just as Spencer wants to protect his daughter, so her shot in the dark was a misguided attempt to protect his garden and his pride.

But if Bohjalian's exposition is informative, it can also become intrusive, stating the obvious, as when we're told, "A lot of what Charlotte did, in Willow's opinion, was about getting people to pay attention to her," in a scene that already brings this point home like an anvil. While Before You Know Kindness is heavy on meticulously accurate description -- of Spencer's injury, for instance, or the monstrosity that is a vegan waffle -- it's lighter on dialogue and action, and the characters suffer as a result. For all that we know about them, they lack great literary characters' ability to surprise us, as real people sometimes defy our most grounded expectations. Livelier dialogue might have helped animate the characters and move the story along -- even the kids in this book have faintly stilted diction: "Don't put it that way. It makes me sound dreadful," sniffs Charlotte when Willow confronts her with facts.

By the time the Seton-McCullough family has weathered its crisis, some readers may feel that Bohjalian has raised more issues -- about the responsibilities of gun owners, the morality of hunting and the conflicts between public ethics and family loyalty -- than he's elucidated. If Spencer is the voice of moral absolutism, Willow seems to speak for the novelist when she wonders why we can't all just get along: "I just wish people didn't make such a big deal about what other people eat."

Before You Know Kindness suggests that real kindness comes from a recognition of human limitations -- even Spencer is mellowed by his experience of physical disability, which forces him to depend on others. It's a powerful theme. But one sometimes wishes that Bohjalian had let us discover it for ourselves, rather than handing us over to a narrator who, like Spencer himself, is all about the talking points.