Before You Know Kindness
By Chris Bohjalian
Shaye Areheart, 422 pp., $25
Seven years ago, Chris Bohjalian published ''Midwives," a novel that explored with intensity and intelligence the practical and legal responsibilities of home birth. Picked up by Oprah Winfrey's book club, it brought the writer wide attention and inaugurated an impressive run of novels, each dealing explicitly with a public subject. ''The Law of Similars" (1999) focused on homeopathic medicine; ''Trans-Sister Radio" (2000) was about the excitements and perils of sex-change operations; and ''The Buffalo Soldier" (2002) dealt with matters of familial and racial tensions. Bohjalian's novels are located in a particular geographic area, a small town in northwestern Vermont called Bartlett with identifiable men and women -- lawyers, schoolteachers, veterinarians, schoolchildren -- all recognizably American, maybe even New England American. Although ''Before You Know Kindness," which may very well be his best, is divided between New Hampshire and New York City, its moral concerns are familiar.
His longest novel to date, ''Before You Know Kindness" also features his largest cast of characters. The central ones are gathered for an end-of-July reunion at 70-year-old Nan Seton's summer home in the White Mountains. These include Nan's daughter Catherine, who teaches at the Brearley School in New York City and is married, not too happily, to Spencer McCullough, an important and totally preoccupied spokesman for the Federation for Animal Liberation, or FERAL, and a committed vegan. Their 12-year-old daughter, Charlotte, is full of adolescent aspirations and dissatisfactions, the latter partly directed at her father. Nan's son John, a public defender in Vermont, is married to Sara, a therapist; their two children are 10-year-old Willow -- who, with her cousin Charlotte, has been vacationing at their grandmother's -- and a baby, Patrick.
Before we are introduced to any of the Setons, a striking four-page prologue titled ''Cavitation" presents, in grisly detail, the shooting of Spencer by his daughter, as he prowls about the vegetable garden late on the second night of his arrival at Nan's. His life is saved thanks to the efforts of two emergency medical technicians who get him to the hospital in time, and thanks to the .30-caliber bullet's destroying his shoulder rather than penetrating his chest or abdomen. Then follows the narrative proper, its opening section (''The Deer") a masterly 120-page account of how the horrible accident came to happen. In brief: Deer have been preying upon the Seton vegetable garden, ruining Spencer's prospect of great veggie treats during his stay. As an animal liberator he cannot even contemplate destroying the deer; but his brother-in-law, a secret fledgling hunter, has carelessly left in the trunk of his car a deer rifle, unloaded except for a single stubborn cartridge John has been unable to dislodge. One thing disastrously leads to another: John asks his daughter to retrieve some diapers from the trunk; she and Charlotte, who has consumed beer and smoked pot at a party earlier in the evening, discover the gun, and while Willow delivers the diapers, Charlotte, gun in hand, sees a sudden movement in the garden. It must be a deer, but in fact it's Spencer, trying to figure out how to save the vegetables. Charlotte impulsively discharges the hitherto-undischargeable bullet, disabling her father.
Such an attempt at plot summary only begins to suggest the exfoliating action, later important parts of which focus on Spencer's excruciating rehabilitation and a projected suit by him and his employer, FERAL, against the gun manufacturer who may have produced a defective weapon. With admirable skill and ease Bohjalian moves his narrative from one character to another without favoring any particular one. Robert Frost once provided a homemade definition of tragedy -- ''something terrible happens and nobody's to blame" -- that fits this novel's refusal to put the blame on anyone in particular. As with Bohjalian's previous books, the reader must feel his way, sympathetically, into competing versions of how life should go. And as with those previous books, this one treats, sometimes in complicated style, matters like the inside of a hunting rifle or the slides and tapes Spencer uses in his speech to the American Association of Meat Substitutes. These include squealing, frightened hogs sent to their death daily; or crustaceans prepared by Spencer himself back in the days when, known as ''Lobster Boy" at the Steer by the Shore Restaurant, ''he would uncoil the springy ribbon of tail and hold down the bulbous crusher claw with his fingers for the split second it took him to line up the cleaver on the lobster's carapace . . . . Then he would press the metal blade straight down as it breathed."
But not breathed its last, since ''the point was to get the creature into the 450-degree oven while it was still alive." After this summer of slaughter, Spencer has a conversion experience to lifetime veganism.
The novel is full of good writing about food. Spencer's wife is a vegetarian but with backslidings into the meat world. On the way to visit her husband at the hospital she indulges in a hamburger with its ''wondrously bedewed pickles and lettuce, the tomato slice lacquered with mayonnaise, and, of course, the patty itself, the pieces of meat crushed by her teeth into a glorious, spumescent paste." Catherine's niece, Willow, is served a waffle by her uncle before the accident, and pushes ''a small square of Soy-garine off the top . . . having decided that the butter substitute tasted even worse than it looked." A small touch, but perfectly executed.
One of the novel's most painful scenes occurs when Spencer, his kitchen equipped with all the ingenious gadgets that will allow a one-armed man to operate on his own, attempts to fix breakfast for himself. What follows is a ''degrading spectacle":
''The bread crushed instead of cut, crumbs on the counter and the floor and (somehow) the dish rack three feet away, soggy clumps of cereal flakes everywhere but in his bowl, the jam jar completely impregnable until finally -- half in rage and half in despair -- he'd thrown it into the sink."
Bohjalian excels at getting his characters into terribly awkward circumstances, more pathetic than tragic, and then showing us how they rise, or don't quite rise, to the occasion. That he makes such circumstances entertaining to us, rather than merely painful, testifies to the novelist's art.
Two reservations about the book: First, and like its predecessor ''The Buffalo Soldier," it can't quite bring itself to conclude as it tries to move into the heads of subordinate characters --like the lawyer FERAL hires to prosecute its case -- not quite credibly. (I'm also dubious about a brief narrative inspection of things from the viewpoint of a crow, as the people disappear and the book winds up.) Second, Bohjalian's usually well-attuned ear is deaf to the unlovely expression ''a tad" too this or that: I counted 11 ''tads" -- at least 10 too many. But no matter. This is a novelist who, though he resembles Evelyn Waugh in no other way, believes like Waugh that a novel's purpose is to entertain and to inform, and who is committed to making timely, well-wrought objects of which ''Before You Know Kindness" is a prime example.
William H. Pritchard is a professor of English at Amherst College. His most recent book is ''Shelf Life: Literary Essays and Reviews."