I don’t think there’s an end to anything, really,” says John Boggs near the end of Arvin’s (Articles of War) impressive second novel. “We’re always just causing whatever will happen next.” The difficulty, sometimes the impossibility, of tracing this chain reaction lies at the heart of Arvin’s story. Ellis Barstow is a young mechanical engineer who has a traumatic accident in his past—the fiery car crash that killed his half-brother, Christopher, and permanently scarred Christopher’s girlfriend, Heather, when the two were high school sweethearts. Ellis has never stopped thinking about Heather, so when he spots her during a chance encounter years later, he is drawn to her immediately. And, through her, he’s thrust into the work of reconstructing car accidents to discover causation and assign blame. Ellis’s mentor is Heather’s husband, Boggs, a prickly, passionate, tireless devotee of this gruesome occupation. Relationships get complicated, and in the wake of another accident Ellis is forced to reconstruct what really happened during Christopher’s accident and to determine the patterns of causation and blame in his own life. Given the easy thematic promise of this setup, it’s a testament to Arvin’s restraint that the novel’s plot is rarely overwhelmed by its theme. Like Ellis’s painstaking work, the novel is suffused with sharp turns and minute, telling details that add up to a riveting consideration of risk and responsibility. (Mar.)
The Reconstructionist becomes a contemplation of the broadest questions of life: How do we love one another? How do we survive the accidents of our lives? … Nick Arvin is an immensely gifted writer, and he has given us a thrilling, soulful book.
With precision prose, The Reconstructionist hurtles the reader at breakneck pace through a story of love and the collision physics of auto crashes....A materpiece of modern fiction.
A man who uncovers the causes of car accidents is forced to reckon with the one that transformed his childhood. Ellis, the hero of the second novel by Arvin (Articles of War, 2005, etc.), has the grim job of investigating car-crash sites on the behalf of lawyers. The gig involves a high degree of precision, which Arvin explains in winning detail: What does a pattern of scratches and dents say about how many times a car flipped over? How far would a passenger be ejected from the windshield of a car that hits another at a particular speed? Ellis and his boss, Boggs, criss-cross the country to study cases, performing their grisly work with the kind of gallows humor common to homicide cops. But Arvin explores what happens when grief can't be patched over with jokes or cold logic. At the center of Ellis' transformation is Heather, who plays a host of roles in the story: She's Boggs' wife, Ellis' mistress and was on the scene when Ellis' half brother was killed in an accident when they were teens. Boggs goes off the rails when he discovers the affair, threatening suicide and sending Ellis on an extended road trip that involves visits to past accident sites. Arvin renders these old accidents in such vivid detail that you can almost, but not quite, ignore the contrivance of the setup. As Ellis struggles to chase down Boggs, he's also piecing together details of his half brother's death—which, by the time the truth becomes clear, feels swallowed by the plot. And a subplot involving Ellis' accidental maiming of a jaywalker feels oddly tacked-on, given the seriousness of its aftermath. Accidents are everywhere and unavoidable, Arvin means to say, but ironically his characters feel overly controlled.