Friday, March 23, 2012

"The Reconstructionist"

Nick Arvin is the award-winning author of the novel Articles of War, named one of the Best Books of the Year by Esquire, and the story collection In the Electric Eden. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he also holds degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan and Stanford, and has worked in both automotive and forensic engineering.

Arvin applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, The Reconstructionist, and reported the following:
It turns out that page 69 of The Reconstructionist is a great introduction to the book's themes and two of the principal characters, Ellis Barstow and his boss John Boggs. Here is the complete page 69 text:
“I don’t really know what an accident is.”

This -- or a version of this -- was one of Boggs'’s themes.

“Everything,” Boggs would say, “depends on the contingent and the adventitious” -- Boggs, liking that word, drew it out -- “and if some people make some decisions that result in the physical interference of one vehicle with another in an intersection, and that can be called an accident, then what can'’t be called an accident? Where my footsteps fall, where I place my hands, where I sit, where I stand, how I appear in the world, who I speak to, the kind of work I do, who I befriend, who I fall in love with?” Boggs pouted. “Accident?”

It had taken Ellis a long time to realize that Boggs didn'’t generally keep friends. He could be too overbearing, too blunt, too indifferent, too chatty, too silent. But somehow, because Ellis worked for him and because Boggs loved the work, Ellis was shielded from the worst of these traits. Moreover, by the nature of the work they were often seated side-by-side for long periods -- in airports, airplanes, rental cars, and hotel bars as they traveled to inspect accident scenes and vehicles -- and the demands of the work curtailed other relationships even as the two of them were pushed together. They talked about books, and they joked easily, and they could be silent easily.
The title of the novel comes from the type of work that Ellis and Boggs do: they reconstruct how and why car crashes occurred, using forensic engineering techniques. I'm an engineer myself, and I worked in accident reconstruction for a while. It's very interesting work but discomforting in the way that it applies cold, analytical techniques to examining situations that are full of coincidence and human drama.

The Reconstructionist represents my effort to explore this conflict inherent in the work. The problems of accident and fate that Boggs describes on page 69 run through the novel, as do the problems of the uneasy friendship between Ellis and Boggs. The only big things that are missing on page 69 are the two other principal characters: Ellis' half-brother, Christopher, who died in his youth and haunts everyone, and Heather, a young woman who comes to a difficult position at the center of the knot that ties all the characters together in their tragedies and struggles.

The story also involves an illicit love affair, Legos, a zombie pig, and of course a couple of car crashes. I hope you'll check it out.
Learn more about the book and author at Nick Arvin's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue