City Boy, by Jean Thompson. Simon & Schuster. 320 pages. $24.
In every collision that occurs when a marriage shatters, the participants somewhere pass an inexorable fork in the road: This way safety and normalcy and civilized behavior, that way everything else. Sadly, that turning has no marker, and many marital combatants (traveling either separately or together), pass it in the dark, only later realizing that it must have been back there somewhere. But where? This topography -- the dark and punishing terrain of the broken human heart -- is flawlessly charted by Jean Thompson in City Boy.
Thompson's opening sentence sets an appropriately ominous tone: "They had a bad neighbor." Newlyweds Jack Orlovich and Chloe Chase have just moved into their new apartment in Chicago. Very much in love, they are beginning their lives together, and Jack, from whose point of view the novel is almost entirely told, is happy. So what if the upstairs neighbor plays such loud music? So what if the older man across the hall is bigoted and nosy? They have each other and an exciting future: She will train as a bank manager while he tries to write his first novel.
Thompson neatly aligns her characters and her story so that the reader, like Jack, is lulled along for a while, interested but not alarmed. But the weirdness that seems to be outside the newlyweds' four walls is seeping in, and it's got a lot of little razor edges. It takes a while for the blood to show but when it finally does, it's everywhere.
Worse, not all of the stress is coming from outside the love nest. Jack's growing unease is compounded by some obvious problems with Chloe -- she's a mean, and frequent, drunk who tries to cover her substantial emotional problems with wine. Little quarrels at home expand into nasty scenes at another couple's house. The little nicks and cracks become big wounds and fissures as the marriage slowly unravels and then explodes, leaving Jack a city boy in dangerous emotional country. Everything he thinks he knows turns out to be false.
In his song The River, Bruce Springsteen asks, "Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse?" For Jack and Chloe, it's both: Their relationship turns out to be first a lie that they built together out of need and affection, and then it turns into something very much worse. Love becomes obsession for Jack, and events spiral out of everybody's control.
It would be unfair to lay out the particulars in too much detail -- part of what makes City Boy so engrossing is the Rosemary's Baby-like sense of a dark narrative with a lot of suspense. So I won't. This depiction of how bad things can arise from good intentions and bad choices doesn't involve Satan or fantasy. Nonetheless, City Boy is just as frightening as Mia Farrow gobbling raw liver in front of her kitchen toaster.
Thompson has written a sharp, painful book about emotional destruction that progresses at the speed of a thriller yet retains the convincing reality of a documentary. Love hurts, indeed.
Dail Willis, a former Sun reporter and editor, is a financial writer living in Albemarle County, Va. Her reviews have been published by the Associated Press, the Chicago Sun-Times and other newspapers, as well as The Sun.