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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Norwegian by Night by Derek Miller (hardcover, $26)

I was sad when this book was over. It had all the elements that I love: comedy, tragedy, quirkiness. They were mixed in impeccable proportions, solidified by solid pacing and lyrical writing.

Norwegian by Night is not a true mystery because you know who the victim is and who killed her. This is a story of people on the run from the bad guys, but it's not like any other on-the-run story you've ever read. One of the people on the run is dressed in a tin foil makeshift Viking outfit with a dust bunny tied up in a pillowcase.

After the recent death of Sheldon Horowitz's wife, he moved from New York to Oslo, Norway, to live with his granddaughter, Rhea, and her Norwegian husband, Lars. Mabel, Sheldon's wife, was convinced that Sheldon had dementia and that thought has passed to their granddaughter, who was raised by Sheldon and Mabel. "'What am I going to do there?'" Sheldon asks, "'I'm an American. I'm a Jew. I'm eighty-two. I'm a retired widower. A Marine. A watch repairman. It takes me an hour to pee. Is there a club there I'm unaware of?'" (He is also the modest author of a popular book of photographs entitled, "What?" In it are portraits of angry people. Sheldon reveals that he sometimes has done outrageous things to get his subjects angry.)

Sheldon's eccentricities or dementia are tied to a contradictory dwelling in the past and at the same time a stubborn avoidance of it. Sheldon fought in the Korean War. Events from that war, which are revealed slowly, have affected him profoundly, although he is unable to talk about what happened. When we first meet Sheldon, he is concerned about North Koreans following him: "They'd been tracking him since 1951 -- he was sure of it. You don't kill twelve men named Kim from the top of a seawall at Inchon and think they're going to forgive and forget…They have Chinese patience, but an Italian-style vendetta streak."

Sometimes his befuddlement is not of his own making. Lars says that two hunting rifles he owns are named Moses and Aaron. "'You have Jewish rifles?'" Sheldon asks. No, Lars explains, they are named after two Norwegian cannons that sank a German ship. Even more puzzled, Sheldon asks: "'Norway has Nazi-killing Jewish cannons?'"

In recent times, he has insisted to Rhea and Lars that he was a sniper in Korea, contradicting what he told Mabel and everyone else for years, that he was a file clerk during the war. Was he a sniper or was he a file clerk? Sheldon says to one of the imaginary companions -- dead people from his past whom he has mentally resurrected -- who occasionally accompany him, "[I]t's not just about what I remember. It's what I don't remember…I don't remember filing anything." Sheldon's logic and memory may be shaky at times, but something is surely rising from his past to help him in his present. "In this life," he thinks, "my memories are the smoke I choke on, burning my eyes."

Rhea and Lars's upstairs neighbors are a Serbian emigré and her young son. One day, while Rhea and Lars are out, Sheldon hears shouting, then the obvious sounds of the woman and her child on the run. Without a large preponderance of thinking, Sheldon opens his door and pulls in the woman and child. Before they can get out a back way, they hear the front door kicked in. At the urging of the mother, Sheldon and the child hide in a closet, so they do not see the intruder who murders the mother. The shouting, the imprecations, the explanations are all in a language Sheldon does not understand. The boy, about 7 or 8 years old, cannot communicate with him. Now what?

Using a sort of thickheaded logic and, worse yet, in the absence of substantiating evidence, Sheldon decides that if it is the boy's father who has murdered the mother, he does not want to let "Paul," as he has nicknamed his silent charge, fall into the hands of the authorities who then might possibly turn him over to his father, the murderer. It would be a different story if this reasoning were faulty, so in fact, the murderer is the boy's father, a Kosovar soldier who finally tracked down the woman and her son, and Sheldon and Paul are justified in running away.

Sheldon eventually comes up with a plan to get to Rhea and Lars's summer home in a remote wooded area. He figures the police will be looking for an elderly American man with a Serbian child, so he pretends to be a German man with his Viking-obsessed grandson -- thus the aforementioned disguise. He plans to lie low until he hears that the killer has been caught.

In implementing his plan, it becomes obvious that Sheldon knows things that ordinary people do not. He also hears things that ordinary people do not. His invisible companions challenge his decisions and force him to revisit his past. WWII and the Korean, Vietnam, and Serbian Wars are the moral backdrops to the current story. The atrocities done in the name of patriotism and ideology -- can they be excused, excised, laid to rest? Are all survivors of war doomed to carry a private burden that sways even their smallest thoughts?  It is not just Sheldon's physical journey to escape a killer but his psychological journey to forgive himself that keeps him moving. 

Sheldon and Mabel's only child, Saul, died in the Vietnam War. Sheldon had been so proud that his son was fighting to defend his country. Too young to fight in WWII, Sheldon wasn't able to personally defend the European Jews against the atrocities there, so he fought in Korea and left a moral example for Saul to follow. Consequently, Sheldon blames himself for sending his son to his death. There are some moving passages as Sheldon imagines what Saul's last few moments must have been like.

Everything coalesces in the end, all of Sheldon's memories, experiences, guilt, courage, and what he truly is as opposed to what he thought he was. There is the final showdown and, like so much of the rest of the book, it is unexpected.

What part of this book is NOT quotable? I had a forest of post-its marking passages.

At one point, Sheldon is overwhelmed with his undertaking: "History itself constantly threatens to take him over and leave him defenseless under its weight. It's not dementia. It's mortality."

When Sheldon and Paul find shelter by breaking into someone's summer home, Sheldon muses on how different homes can be: "And wait until you get to England and find they put carpets in the bathrooms, as if that isn't the grossest idea in Western civilization. One New Year's party over there and you'll never walk barefoot again."

I haven't even mentioned Sigrid Ødegård, the police detective trying to catch the murderer and find Sheldon and Paul. She, too, is a fine eccentric character. But the story is Sheldon's, no argument. Everyone else is there to provide Sheldon with the means to carry on his emotional journey.

Perhaps it's true that the best sort of book is not unlike the best sort of food: sweet and sour. The yin and yang, if balanced, yields a delight to the senses. Derek Miller balances humor and sadness so well.

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