Paul Griner’s new novel, The Book of Otto and Liam, opens with Otto Barnes, a thirty-something freelance artist, getting pulled over. He’d been following a route mapped out precisely three years before by an adolescent boy; his destination is an elementary school where the boy shot sixty teachers and children, Otto’s eight-year-old son, Liam, among them. Having aroused a police officer’s suspicion, Otto is mistaken for a disaster tourist and summarily scolded. The officer, it turns out, was called into the elementary school that day three years ago. Before he can further reprimand Otto for his ghoulish interest in the tragedy, Otto tells him who he is. The officer is speechless. Finally, Otto reaches out to the officer with kindness and generosity, a gesture that belies his conflicted, tortured heart:
Officer? I say. I’m sorry you had to see those things, and I’m sorry my visit brought them back.
Which is true, I’m sorry, though it’s also true I’m not, two contradictory truths, both parallel and in opposition, as far as the east is from the west: I don’t really want his pain, but I want my own pain even less. The fundamental paradox of my current life.
This paradox, and a host of other Manichean conflicts—between the pain of remembering and the solace of memory, trust and betrayal, communion and alienation, obsession and disgust—haunt Otto throughout this vital, arresting novel. Griner is especially fearless as he investigates the friction that occurs after Liam survives the shooting. Although he is gravely wounded, Otto and his wife May have cause to celebrate, while their fellow parents are locked in the darkest chambers of grief. The anxiety of Liam’s subsequent months in the hospital, though, dislocates any sense of relief they may have felt, and so they are split between feelings of gratitude, survivor’s guilt, and the intense grief of watching their young son suffer. As Otto, throttled by this swirl of emotions, observes, “Whatever darkness hides inside you? Their pain brings it out.”
Like so many of us in these profoundly fallen times, Otto possesses the moral clarity and maturity to see his way through the uglier manifestations of his pain, but he struggles to act on them. Sometimes, as the encounter with the cop indicates, Otto succeeds and his behavior aligns with the way he understands himself, and he still finds himself unsatisfied. Other times, he’s less successful, and his self-lacerating grief pushes him to violence and obsession, which serve as satisfying, if brief, balm.
Otto’s inclination to turn away from his better angel is perhaps most noticeable in his fixation on a character named Kate. Kate is a popular conspiracy theorist who questions the veracity of the shooting at Liam’s school. Since school shootings have become so commonplace, and have been covered so thoroughly by the media, they seem to follow a familiar kind of formula. That Liam survives the shooting is enough of a disruption in the established narrative to focus Kate’s unhinged speculations. In her online videos, she claims Otto is an actor, and Liam may not even be real, and if he is, he’s an actor, too. Like all conspiracy theorists, she derives her power from lies the government did indeed manufacture, and from there she provides just enough credible-sounding evidence to engender the outrage of her cynical and gullible followers. This “false flag” reporting is a particularly vile dungeon underlying contemporary life, and while the temptation for many of us is to condemn it or dismiss it, Otto doesn’t have that liberty. These hoaxers, following Kate’s directives, find Otto again and again. For years they have harassed him, vandalized his property and threatened him. Otto has had enough. Mining the internet for any scraps of information, Otto has been hunting Kate. Just as she and her followers have been passing Otto’s information—his address, phone number, client list, etc.—amongst themselves, so Otto has been tracking her down. Kate is his obsession. She is his woundedness, his hate. And he’s coming for her.
But Griner is too skilled a realist to allow The Book of Otto and Liam to become a simple revenge story. There are indeed moments of exhilarating rectification, but these moments are so deeply grounded in the novel’s moral texture that each victory is balanced by an awareness of what’s forfeited. After Otto and May divorce—the strain of Liam’s time in the hospital proves too much for their marriage—Otto’s friendship with a fellow parent, Lamont, evolves into his most important relationship. Lamont’s son was killed in the shooting, and his grief over the loss metastasizes into overwhelming rage. While the two men share simple bachelor dinners, drink a little too much together, discuss their challenges with dating—Lamont’s marriage nose-dives as well in the turbulent aftermath—they also psych each other up. Otto is disturbed by Lamont’s terrific anger, but since he understands it, he shares in it. Lamont is more prone to acting out his aggression, and when the hoaxers, convinced that all the graves of the murdered children are empty, deface Lamont’s dead son’s grave, his desire to hit back consumes him. “[F]or a week Lamont had kept watch among the resiny poplars behind a nearby crypt, waiting for the vandals to return. I never asked, but I assumed he’d brought his gun. Perhaps I would too if they knocked down Liam’s gravestone. I studied my pale hand, imagined my fingers curling around the grip of one.” This contagious nature of rage—reasonable rage, instinctive and expected, even—at injustice and cruelty is one of the central themes of the novel. The stupidity of the hoaxers, their gregarious mean-spiritedness, is such an affront to decency that we, as readers, find ourselves as helplessly seduced into hungering for retaliation alongside Otto. After four years of being held hostage by the country’s vilest instincts and the mainstreaming of conspiratorial resentments, Otto’s struggles with his own righteous virulence feels especially keen.
On Otto’s other shoulder is his ex-wife and Liam’s mother, May. May’s rigorous morality guides them through the first few months in the neuro-ICU. Through this emotionally chaotic period, impotently watching their small son in his hospital bed, their marriage begins to crumble as Otto gives in to forced optimism and May holds fast to her realism. This is a central characteristic of May, but her pragmatism isn’t cold. She is as emotionally present as she is decisive. Before the shooting, May and Otto have a brief argument over temporary tattoos Otto bought Liam. She dismisses them, saying they look foolish. Liam leaves in a huff, but Otto sticks around to discuss the issue. May, at her computer, explains her position, and it’s the final word on the matter. “He came out of me as perfect as an egg, she said, fingers tapping the keys. The way we’re all created. I don’t want that ruined. And I don’t want you planting that idea in his head.”
Years after their divorce, May has taken up with another man. Still, much of Otto’s story is the story of Otto and May: their courtship, their happy years before Liam was shot, the tense months before the dissolution of their marriage, and the friendship that develops afterward. Readers of Griner’s short stories and novels know that he is a meticulous chronicler of marriage, and his examination of a marriage as it attempts to navigate, and dashes itself against, trauma is no exemption. As May and Otto cut and cure one another as only long-married people can, we see that they are bonded to one another just as deeply through love as they are through the tragedy they share.
Griner’s readers also know that he is a writer of singular wit. The Book of Otto and Liam is a serious and urgent book, with the power to appall, outrage, thrill and make a reader mourn; it is also a very funny book. Its timeline mainly slaloms between the months surrounding the shooting in late 2015 and the months surrounding its three-year anniversary, but Griner has larded his narrative with glimpses of Liam’s humor (from a young age, he refers to his parents by their first names, even as he councils his mother on a more proper term for his penis) and moments of delightful levity, as well as several very fine drawings, doodles, and collages Otto produces for work and pleasure. The effect is a narrative in constant flux, a giddy spill one moment, a patient, studied meditation the next.
Trauma narratives all too often collapse into a kind of torture porn, entertainments akin to the disaster tourism that repulsed the officer at the novel’s opening. But Griner gives us a story that is at once bursting with life and hollowed out by death, that celebrates our humanity and knows all our dirty secrets. The Book of Otto and Liam is a portrait of us in our present moment, battered by a reckless and deceitful government, battling our own inurement to daily horrors, and doing our best to get on with the business of living.