The recent crisis, orchestrated by the racist Trump regime culminating in the horror of separating children from parents seeking asylum at the US border, evoked backlash and intense sorrow across ethnic, racial and class lines. It also brought to fore varied responses and dialogue among Americans who have watched the spilling of a toxic mix of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and open season on black men and women, Latinos, LGBTQ, and other vulnerable groups.
Two responses jostled my already unsolaced heart. One was by a colleague, white and female who posted an article on social media titled ‘White People Are Cowards’ by Michael Harriot. Harriot toys with the idea whether white people are inherently evil or just coward in doing nothing to stop racism. What surprised me while browsing the comments in response to my colleague’s post was the willingness to accept by most that they might indeed be possessed by an ‘evil DNA’.
One shouldn’t take this literally; instead this reflects how angry and sad, even helpless, some people feel in the current political milieu.
The other was the dialogue that revolved around ‘That’s not us!’ or ‘That’s un-American!’, which elicited responses such as one penned by Hadley Freeman for The Guardian according to which Trump’s cruelty towards children, albeit shocking, should not have surprised Americans. She writes, “The policy of separating families has the president’s name written all over it. But it also has an awful American pedigree.” Ignorance/innocence and violence co-exist.
Now let us turn to the book under review, Ill Will and what it tells us about the American character, generally and metaphorically speaking.
The author Dan Chaon tries to lay bare the nexus of evil and violence as a foundation upon which the modern American society allows itself to function. Dustin Tillman, a psycho-therapist, whose thesis was about recovered memories, lives with a wife dying of cancer. His two teenage sons are kept aloof, one on a downward spiral with addiction to weed, the other cutting his ties but moving away, ditching his father and brother in the process. When Dustin was small, he found his parents, an aunt and uncle murdered by, according to Dustin and his cousin Kate’s testimony, by Rusty who had been adopted by his parents. Kate’s twin sister Wave didn’t share Dustin and Kate’s view and drifts apart, while Kate stays in touch with her cousin Dustin. Their mothers were sisters and their fathers brothers.
There’s a hint the two couple might have liked to swing. The background is rural, mid-western. The house of Rusty’s first foster parents was burnt down. When adopted the second time around, Rusty is a precocious teenager, bragging about magic and Shaman sacrificial ritual, quite common among teenagers in the backward parts of the US in the 1980s. He subjected Dustin to mild torture and even molestation while Dustin hoped to find a brother in him.
The novel opens with Dustin and Kate feeling worried when they learn that Rusty has been freed, as the DNA evidence proves his innocent after several decades.
Aqil Ozorowski, a detective on a paid leave, is Dustin’s patient, but Dustin’s vulnerability allows Aqil to breach the therapist-client red lines as they become friends. Aqil convinces Dustin that he is close to decoding a series of deaths of young white men, found drowned in nearby rivers with high alcohol level in the blood stream. By the time the novel ends, Rusty, Dustin, and his pothead son are all dead with Aqil the mastermind behind the murders.
Though Dustin is at the centre of the novel, Chaon inserts several narrators: sometimes two or three narratives run alongside on the same page. It is a well-crafted, well-paced novel even if it drags a bit in the middle. The author wants to make a point that it is not a typical mystery, a page turner for those who don’t want to ruminate. The novel carefully reinforces the notion of unreliability of memory. As one finishes the novel, a couple of observations stand out, missed by most reviews I have read.
There’s a telling scene after two sets of parents are dead. The children are sent to their grandmother’s house located in a no man’s land. Dustin is too young. The girls are teenagers, but the way the girls behave with the grandmother (and the grandmother’s relative coldness) speaks volume about the American culture. Is violence in America connected to our children’s disconnect with their families, grandparents, aunts and uncles? The way the two girls show disrespect also suggests their parents’ attitude towards their elders. Dustin’s sons in turn treat Dustin with somewhat similar disinterest.
When did disrespecting elders in America become a part of our DNA? Whether the author seems to question or condone, I cannot tell.
The other observation that is worth discussing is the name Aqil, the ex-police officer, who has succeeded in making Dustin believe the two have become friends. Dustin is curious about his client’s name and tries to pin him down with regards to his race, which seems white but with a shade of something dark. Ozorowski, he is told, is of Polish origin. But their conversation falters as the name ‘Aqil’ is discussed. Aqil means ‘knowledgeable, if its Arabic source is considered. But the name is also part of American urban slang and it means all sorts of things, from ‘funny’ to ‘adorable’ to ‘a keeper’ to ‘with a large member’ to ‘lazy’ to ‘Mr. Perfect’ to ‘a weirdo.’
He is too many things and maybe he knows too much about the sinister, murderous history of this country; one wonders why Dustin is killed by the one he trusts.
On a cursory reading one may be tempted to consider either Rusty or Dustin as the ultimate other whom the society has mistreated but despite their personal shortcomings, Chaon succeeds in evoking sympathy in the reader’s heart for them. What remains unexamined is Aqil Ozorowski. Based on his name and uncertain skin complexion, he appears to be the real other. Is it possible that he embodies the anger and desire for revenge that generations of marginalised people have felt? Dustin couldn’t get a word out of Aqil about his parents or siblings. Is he a metaphor? Why would he inflict such pain on Dustin? And if he is the one killing all those young white men, then why?
This brings us back to what has been transpiring at the US borders, the violence of snatching children from their parents with no clear plans to reunite them. This is not the first time it has been done. It was done to the Native Americans and African slaves, not to mention the Immigration Act of 1924, which was based on racial discrimination.
Is Chaon suggesting that the legacy of snatching children from Native American and African American parents has resulted in poisoning the American landscape and that there’s no redemption? Do the recurrent mass shootings of children in the US have roots in the violent history of America’s past? Can a country that does not apologise for its crimes against the most vulnerable segments of society stop the cycle of violence?
It is a misreading to consider Chaon’s Ill Will as a murder mystery. Instead it could be read as a plea to face difficult questions and trace the roots of injustice and violence. It is an extremely uncomfortable novel, written for unsettling times.
Author: Dan Chaon
Publisher: Ballantine Books, 2017
Price: Paperback $11.59