Old Newgate Road by Keith Scribner
Wednesday, January 9, 2019 at 7:04AM
TChris in General Fiction, Keith Scribner

Published by Knopf on January 8, 2019

Cole remodels homes in the Pacific Northwest, often using chestnut from the east coast. After thirty years, Cole is back in Connecticut, where he plans to dismantle a tobacco barn. He grew up on Old Newgate Road in East Granby where his childhood was tragic. He’s kept it locked away, but an unexpected family reunion threatens to unlock the gates of memory. A true memory, not the version of the truth that he has carefully constructed and reshaped and lived with for so many years.

In the present, Cole is separated from an unfaithful wife who wants more steam in the bedroom than Cole can generate. He’s having issues with his rebellious son Daniel, who is in the custody of his wife back in Portland — rebellious because he commits misdemeanors to save the world from greedy corporations — but Cole’s trip to East Granby diverts his attention from pressing problems at home. The last Cole knew, his father was in prison. Now he’s back in the family home, suffering from dementia.

Cole’s idea is to bring Daniel to East Granby where he can work on a tobacco farm and help care for Cole’s father — in other words, teach Daniel discipline by making his life hell. Daniel is the novel’s voice of honesty, a voice that speaks unpleasant truths to his father as the story nears its end.

Meanwhile, Cole tries to run his business and salvage his marriage while he’s on a different coast, an effort that proves to be untenable. It doesn’t help that his wife has found a therapist to validate her infidelity.

Flashbacks acquaint the reader with Cole’s childhood, his brother and sister, the marathon-obsessed uncle and unhappy aunt with whom he lived for a while in high school, and the alcoholic grandmother with whom he stayed before moving to the west coast. All have been touched by the same tragedy; each has reacted in a different way.

“The past only has the meaning we give it in the present,” one of the characters observes. Letting go of the past — or not — is the novel’s main theme, coupled with the theme of forgiveness. Cole unpacks a room full of guilt during the novel while victims of his transgressions are astonished that he even remembers the things for which he blames himself.

At the same time, Cole wonders just how far the apple has fallen from the tree. He has difficulty letting go of rage, even at small insults he suffered long ago. Is he more like his father than he is willing to admit? Is he capable of forgiving his father? Should he? And how will Daniel turn out? Does he have his grandfather’s lack of self-control? The answer to the last question comes in a dramatic scene near the novel’s end that seems to reprise an incident from Cole’s past.

Old Newgate Road is a powerful family drama, but the story avoids the melodrama that afflicts so many books about dysfunctional families. Its power derives from its honest depiction of violence against women and from the impact of violence not just on its female victims but on male family members who witness it, whether they choose to confront or deny it.

The story also illustrates the perils of raising children without first resolving long-standing anxieties and issues of self-doubt. As much as Cole worries about how Daniel will grow up, by the end of the novel Cole understands that he’s the one who needs to mature. Sometimes fathers have more to learn from sons than sons can learn from fathers. That realization gives both Cole and the reader hope that it is never too late to put aside the past and to focus on the present.

A dramatic ending that follows the dramatic moments that precedeS it brings the story full circle while suggesting how the lives of the primary characters might turn out. Purposeful prose, convincing characters, and a strong story make Old Newgate Road a novel that will linger in the reader’s memory.

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