THE PROGRAM by Hal Niedzviecki (Random House), 318 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Hal Niedzviecki goes to some very disturbing places in his new novel. Writing in terse, stripped-down prose, he tells the story of Maury, an ad man who runs away from his marriage when he can't handle the mess he's made of his son Danny.
But maybe he wasn't the one who made the mess. Maybe it was his fucked-up brother Cal that time Maury left Danny at Cal's house and who-knows-what happened when Cal locked Danny in the closet.
The book unfolds as a series of mysteries. Why is Danny so unmanageable? Why does he stab his teacher with a pencil? And where is Cal now anyway? Has he just disappeared or is he no longer alive? Maury abandons his life to find out.
Along the way Niedzviecki - who's also a NOW film columnist - gives us some soulful, beautifully written moments.
The segment detailing Maury's mother's God-questioning experience in the shtetl is killer. And a sequence in which the counsellors play war games with the kids at summer camp - evoking some of the even more appalling midnight roundups some Jewish camps re-enact to teach lessons about the Holocaust - is riveting.
But Niedzviecki loses his grasp of the story once the book focuses on the titular program, a virtual reality "game" invented by Danny so he can lose himself in cyberspace. It's a terrific idea but the concept - and the suddenly much less penetrable style the author uses to realize it - sends the book into sci-fi mode when it was doing just fine as a gripping tale of real-life alienation and regret.
But make no mistake - Niedzviecki has definitely expanded his range and is taking new risks.
There's tons of talent here.