You shall know us by our velocity
In the propulsive Cruisers, two Vermont men move inexorably toward a confrontation
By Craig Nova
Shaye Areheart, 306 pp., $24
The word "cruisers" in Craig Nova's title technically refers to the vehicles that state trooper Russell Boyd drives. But both Boyd and Frank Kohler, the novel's other protagonist, are also cruisers. Each fights inertia, seeking ways to break through the ever more circular and repetitive paths his life is taking. Russell and Frank live at society's margins, Frank because of his solitary habits -- he lives alone in the Vermont woods and works on computers -- and Russell because of his job, driving alone at night, scanning the highways for anything amiss.
The two men interact three times over the course of the novel, with each meeting building toward an inevitable confrontation. When they meet for the first time, Russell and his schoolteacher girlfriend, Zofia, are fishing on land that neither realizes belongs to Frank. This encounter sets the tone for the rest of their interactions. As the two men speak, "Kohler seemed to recede back into that stance of complete, statue-like immobility, which, in its stillness, in its complete quietness, was more threatening than if he had moved, since everything about him suggested a building up of pressure rather than a release, an increasing intensity that only appeared calm in his own contemplation of it."
This mounting pressure affects both men, although Russell's job keeps him accustomed to edgy characters. He loves being a trooper, working all night before coming home to Zofia, who listens each dawn for the reassuring sound of him removing his body armor. Often filled with a quiet dread and horror, Russell evaluates each driver he pulls over, honing his sense for detecting what is wrong in each speeding car, just as he uses a tuning fork to calibrate the radar in his cruiser. Trying to understand the criminal element with whom he collides every day, he finds nothing. "It was this emptiness that had sucked Russell into this place, and while he knew that more knowledge of it would only make him feel worse, he still tried to grasp that appalling vacancy."
Frank has survived a childhood reminiscent of a James Ellroy character's, complete with a murdered prostitute mother. His inability to connect to the world around him scares him, and in an effort to buck his stifling solitude, he decides to procure a mail-order bride from Russia. But as the novel unfolds, his constant and abortive attempts to break out of his downward slide are all the sadder for their futility. A scene in a Burger King after his new wife, Katryna, lands in America shows his trouble imposing change on his circumstances. As they sit across from each other, Frank tries to think of things to say to the wife he has just met. "He swallowed the hot coffee, resisting that moment which promised so much but delivered so little." Frank's life is a series of those moments, and the wait for one of them to be productive is nearly unbearable. He wants to "emerge from the shadows he had lived in for years" into a place filled with light, but can't seem to figure out how to do so.
The New England of the novel is a place in flux, where Frank is befuddled by a chic caf serving 10 kinds of coffee in a formerly rough part of town where "something of the old days still lurked behind the incense and the sushi." Characters repeatedly find themselves in depressed surroundings. Nova sets scenes in cheap apartments, old cars, grim motel rooms, a house by a river bridge, a bus station in a strip mall, a "transitional strip between the respectable and the tawdry" between the Combat Zone and the Commons, and a dog pound with "a flat roof with desert-colored stucco on the walls, which were already cracked, and a window with a broken venetian blind behind it."
Along with these gloomy places, recurrent images convey the book's ominous tone. These include a black dog, a black snake, and ever-changing light, from sunlight that descends with a "soothing, fluidic presence" to a sunset that looks like "the smoky residue of desire." Hunting permeates the novel. Russell acts as the drag for a local group of foxhunters, spreading the fox's scent and then watching the horses and riders as they thunder by, and the hunting lodge that he remembers from boyhood as well as Frank's somewhat feral existence and predilection for guns adds to the feeling of an ongoing pursuit. The narrative shifts between predator and prey take place slowly and with care, so that the novel builds as it recasts characters over and over.
Some minor characters in "Cruisers" -- the low-rent Russian mobster, the snobby foxhunting woman at a society ball who leers at the handsome, blue-collar Russell, the Bible-quoting runaway girl who seems as if she will lift Frank out of his fugue -- seem to have been sent over to this otherwise well-designed novel by an unimaginative casting agent. Fortunately, these cameo roles are infrequent, and for the most part, Nova focuses on his intriguing main characters.
"Frank Kohler knew he was running out of time," Nova writes, and the whole novel takes its cue from Frank's needs, as if temporal pressure is speeding it along. The pacing of "Cruisers" is compulsive and relentless, perfect for a book named after the constant motion of state troopers' cars as they patrol the highways, night after endless night.
Eliza R. L. McGraw is a writer living in Washington, D.C.