Halfway through Rachel Basch’s third novel, The Listener, the reader gets the feeling that the title is ironic. Malcolm Dowd is a psychotherapist at the college in his town. His job is to listen; no doubt his skill at listening has saved the sanity or even the lives of the sad people who unburden themselves in his office. But when it comes to his own loved ones, Malcolm Dowd is about as deaf as a stump.
It’s a glad thing when a reader encounters a character so compelling that you want to punch him in the nose. Such abhorrence—it’s not really hatred—can be as pleasurable in its own way as love. Such is the aggravation caused by Jonas Karlsson’s weird, insufferably arrogant, not quite neuro-normal protagonist in the crisp, novella-length book The Room.
Someone is setting fire to the houses of Pomeroy, New Hampshire, in Sue Miller’s latest novel, but that’s beside the point. The important thing is that Francesca “Frankie” Rowley has returned from a long sojourn in Africa as an aid worker and she doesn’t know what to do with herself. Besides, the thing that lights her fire is Bud Jacobs, the local newspaper editor whose life is just as up in the air as hers is. The two launch a passionate affair even as everyone else’s summer home is being torched.
In Richard Power’s latest novel, Orfeo, the last great problem for Peter Els begins when his old, beloved dog kicks the bucket. The poor dog’s death is messy—killed by his ex-wife, in his amateur biology lab. It’s present-day America, and a layperson messing with Petri dishes of weird bacteria is a no-no. Before Els knows it, men in hazmat suits come and confiscate some of his stuff. He goes out for his morning run, and when he comes back folks from what looks like Homeland Security have come to confiscate the rest of it. In response, Els does what he’s been doing most of his life—he runs.