Timothy Bazzett's Reviews > The Reconstructionist

The Reconstructionist by Nick Arvin
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's review
Feb 24, 2012

it was amazing
Read on February 24, 2012

Weird science, mystery and a semi-demented road trip. Great read!

I have been looking forward to Nick Arvin's next novel ever since reading his first, the excellent ARTICLES OF WAR (2005). And THE RECONSTRUCTIONIST did not disappoint me. Far from it. In fact I found Arvin's second novel to be an absolutely riveting page-turner, well worth the wait.

Arvin's second novel might be considered by some to be a difficult book to categorize, dealing as it does with a pair of forensic engineers, or "reconstructionists," whose profession involves the painstaking gathering of physical and mechanical evidence from both police reports and the actual sites of automobile accidents (sometimes months or even years after the crashes). These reconstructionists' job is to study measurements and detailed photographs of tire marks, vehicle damage, crash debris and numerous other clues, and then, using specialized computer programs and knowledge gained from technical studies like "Speed Estimation from Vehicle Crush in Side Pole Impacts" or "Physical Evidence Analysis and Roll Velocity Effects in Rollover Accident Reconstruction," they design arguments in the form of "expert" depositions to be used in courtrooms.

Of course difficulty in pigeonholing a book is not necessarily a bad thing, because it cerainly does not hurt Arvin's story. And the technical details he includes are not overpowering. No; there are just enough to keep readers intrigued with this arcane science, of which, I suspect, most of us were heretofore entirely ignorant.

But the heart of the story lies in its characters - the two men, young Ellis Barstow and his friend and mentor reconstructionist, John Boggs. Boggs's wife, Heather, is a shadowy figure from Ellis's troubled past, and the two soon begin an affair which portends tragic consequences. So there is a love triangle to be reckoned with right off the bat. Or perhaps even a "quadrangle," since Heather had once been involved with Christopher, Ellis's older half-brother, killed years before in a fiery car crash.

And Christopher becomes a player here too, as Arvin's skillful third-person narrative shifts frequently between the present, with Boggs, Barstow and Heather, and the past, with Christopher, Ellis and Heather. The boys' father, a weak and ineffectual man, also plays a more-than-minor role, in both time frames.

There is a kind of off-center, road-trip, picaresque element to the story too, as Ellis pursues Boggs on an extended and semi-demented car chase across several states. This part of the story left me with mixed feelings, because, although I think I understood the reasons and necessity for it, on the one hand I thought it perhaps went on a bit too long, but on the other hand I wished there had been more concrete landmarks, i.e. the names of towns and cities as he crossed from state to state, so that I could have followed the route on a map. But perhaps by omitting such details, Arvin thought to make Ellis's crazed pursuit more surreal, even more 'demented.'

I only finished reading the book a couple of days ago, so perhaps I need more time and distance to figure it all out. But I'm always searching for 'significance' or 'meaning' in a book like this, and there are a couple things I encountered that are still puzzling. One is the unidentified dead man by the lake; the other is the image of Ellis's father, mounted on a disused white toilet sitting in a weedy field by his house as a sudden storm swept through. Ellis watched him -

"... glowing in his white shirt. He remained atop the toilet, waving his white arm high in the air, like a captain committed to going down with the ship."

I mean, is he Ahab lashed to the whale, or what? And even more, why? I've gotta ask Arvin one day what these two separate scenes - the dead guy at the lake, Pop on the can - were dong in there. Or as my old English teachers used to so frustratingly inquire, "What do they MEAN?"

The characters here though: Ellis, Boggs and Heather - they are so GOOD! I mean I'm still thinking about them. I can't get them out of my head. And Christopher, who is actually kind of a prick, if you wanna know the truth - him too. There's a line early on in THE RECONSTRUCTIONIST, something Boggs says, that could be key to this whole story. At least for me, because I've still got so many questions. Boggs, the analytical engineer, the reconstructionist who was so good at his job, at anyalyzing evidence and data and coming up with answers and reasons, said this -

"Well, the dynamics of a family are pretty much the most inexplicable anti-analytic thing on earth."

You said it, Boggs. And this is a richly intimate, moving and impeccably executed examination of those dynamics. The truth is I haven't even begun to explain the intelligence and complexity of all that makes up this novel. You'll just have to read it. And I hope you will. But back to where I started. Riveting. Page-turning. Beautiful. Bravo, Mr. Arvin.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER
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