cover image The Red Arrow

The Red Arrow

William Brewer. Knopf, $26 (272p) ISBN 978-0-593-32012-9

In Brewer’s cerebral, somewhat muddled debut novel (after the poetry collection I Know Your Mind), a depressed writer embarks on a mind-bending journey of self-discovery. The unnamed novelist travels from Rome to Bologna to track down a famous physicist whose memoir he has agreed to ghostwrite in order to pay back a debt to his publisher. “The more of his life I write, the more of my life I get back,” says the writer, who blew his advance for an abandoned novel about a chemical spill in his home state of West Virginia. His artistic failure stems partly from his suicidal depression, which he seeks to cure through hallucinogens. On the train to and from Bologna, he unfurls his memories of the spill, “an event whose damage was still rippling out across my life”; of his New York City days as a struggling painter before turning to writing; and of the physicist’s reticence around the “great realization” that led to his theory of quantum gravity. Brewer addresses the challenges of describing a historical disaster, psychic pain, and the knotty realities of spacetime, with his protagonist openly admitting his failure to do so. The written attempts, though, often verge on the elliptical monologues of True Detective, and not in a good way. In the end, this doesn’t quite cohere. Agent: Chris Parris-Lamb, Gernert Company. (May)