The Guest Room – Chris Bohjalian

“And there’s more.”
“How? Seriously, Richard, how could there possibly be more?”

It’s an excellent question, asked by Kristin Chapman, wife of Richard, brother of Phillip who is getting married in a couple of weeks. You see, Richard is his brother’s best man, and thus in charge of the bachelor party. We’ll have it at our house, he and his wife decide, which should keep the inevitable bacchanalian tendencies to a minimum. So Kristin and their nine year old daughter go stay with Kristin’s mother in New York City while Phillip and his friends converge on their upscale suburban home. At the beginning, Richard wonders with some unease whether one of Phillip’s friends is going to hire a stripper; at the end, the two strippers hired by Phillip’s scumbag friend – apparently prostitutes from Russia, probably sex slaves, possibly under-aged – have engaged in NSFW acts with most of the drunken party guests, killed the two guards that accompanied them, and fled into the night. The Chapmans’ couch is never going to be the same again … nor that carpet … nor the painting that caught a considerable amount of blood splatter … nor the lives of anyone in that house that night or their families’.

In another one of those weird and wonderful moments of serendipity that have been haunting me for a while now, I turned on a concert by Billy Joel while I was writing this. And …

You are still a victim of the accidents you leave
As sure as I’m a victim of desire.

Don’t ask me why.

I admit, I requested this from Netgalley months ago, without reading any more than “Chris Bohjalian”. I read Sandcastle Girls through Netgalley, and became an instant fan of his writing. It was only later that I actually paid attention to the synopsis, and my heart sank – I did not want to read that. I admit to a certain desire to keep my head in the sand. And it is a bitter pill – I have no doubt in the world about the verisimilitude of the details of the sex trade as described in this book. Almost as disheartening was the mindset of three quarters of the men in the story, which again felt pretty damned accurate: an appalling and alien level of self-centered indifferent misogyny, stupidity, cupidity, and callousness.

Of course, the latter is directly responsible for the former.

And it’s not just the men. The behavior of the media, of Richard’s bosses, of the little family’s friends and Phillip’s disgusting accomplices, and even Kristin’s students (“I mean, if it’s upsetting you, it’s upsetting us. And it might affect how we do on the AP tests.”) …

It is good, therefore, that Bohjalian coats the bitter pill. He places at the center of the story a genuinely nice guy. Richard Chapman is no saint, but he loves his wife, adores his daughter, and is genuinely shattered by everything that has happened. Along with a few less visible characters he keeps me from descending into complete misandry. If the hero of the book had been anything other than – yes, thank you, Billy Joel, that’s the perfect song for this moment – an “Innocent Man”, I would have found this almost impossible to get through. (If I can survive I can keep you alive… Although this is a fight I can lose, The accused is an innocent man … ) But Richard does just about everything right. He gives a damn. He tries. How that works out is something you’ll just have to find out for yourself … It was a devastating ending, and at one point, as a shot rang out, I literally felt my equilibrium fail for a moment.

Bohjalian has a gift for character. I was dreading Kristin a little: she’s going to be the strident and outraged wife, isn’t she … (Lord knows she had just cause, and Lord knows I probably would be, but it would not have been fun to read.) But her pain and doubt were bolstered by an inextinguishable awareness of absurdity. “She was a marble sculpture: Devastated Woman in Sleep Shirt.” There is no sense of a need to have “Free Richard” fliers printed – they’re a good team, a good pair, and thank God for their example in the midst of the rest of it. (Now, Nicole, Phillip’s fiancée? For her I was designing not only fliers but t-shirts. And a billboard. Neon.) And the daughter Melissa was sharper than I (or her parents) expected, more aware, better able to process the events and ride the tidal wave while still being an authentic child, worried simultaneously about whether her parents might divorce and whether the two dead men, men who were bad in life, will haunt her house. And the girl Alexandra, the dark-haired girl, the stripper/prostitute/courtesan with whom Richard formed an unexpected and improbable bond, who tells what led up to that “party for the bachelor” in a first-person narrative which intercuts the story of what followed it, rang true as well. It’s entirely my own issue that I heard her voice as that of Orphan Black’s Helena. There was no self-pity in her story – it’s plain and painful and painfully honest. Angry, occasionally bitter, but while mourning enters the tone toward the end it is delivered with a stark candor that makes it easier … and harder.

The aftermath of a disaster… Something that should have been a night of stupid behavior forgotten by everyone as soon as the hangover wore off, turning instead into a nuclear bomb… There’s a description of blowback that I never thought about before: “How much of the bodyguard’s heart or lungs or bone was up the barrel of the gun?” It was a question about the murder – and also a metaphor for the whole book: it’s all about blowback. No, it wasn’t an easy read. But – read it. (And then, if nothing else, you too can try to find ways to inject the word “noctivagant” into everyday conversation.)

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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