Restoration touches every page of “Old Newgate Road,” the new novel from Keith Scribner. It is a portrait of an American family still threatened by the past as its members labor to construct a sustainable present.
After decades on the West Coast, Cole Callahan returns from Portland to the tobacco fields of East Granby, Conn. He’s come back to salvage wood from an old shed, wood for a new addition to his home out west.
Part of the wood is to be used for a “family room,” while the remainder will be sold for profit. It is 30,000 feet of American chestnut, “as prized as mahogany by woodworkers until the trees were wiped out by blight in the early decades of the twentieth century.” The same might be said for the American “prize” of family that Cole is also trying to restore.
Cole has worked hard to stay away from Old Newgate Road and the old colonial home his parents were saddled with restoring. It’s been years since the night his father strangled Cole’s mother in a fit of anger while their three children listened upstairs.
Now, Cole has decided to save money by staying in that same house while he hastily arranges to salvage the wood and prepare it to be shipped west.
When he arrives, however, he is surprised to find his father there also, playing their old family piano.
Phil Callahan has served his prison sentence and has returned to the empty house. He will slowly descend into dementia even as he, too, tries to “restore” what remains of the family home, even as he finishes the final jar of red currant jelly his dead wife “put up.” Encountering his father after 30 years, Cole must also face himself as well, and face not only what he has left unfinished in his old family home, but also what he has left unfinished about his own family out west.
For things are not good in Portland, either. His wife, Nikki, has moved out of the house he is presently gathering wood to add that family room to. Their 15-year-old son, Daniel, free-thinking and rebellious, has just been expelled from high school for his liberal protests.
In quick succession, Cole arranges for Daniel to come to northern Connecticut to work in the tobacco fields, to help with his grandfather and to assist his father with the restoration of the home on Old Newgate Road.
Cole has finally comprehended a truth about himself: “He thought he’s moved on, but he’s beginning to feel like he only moved away.”
What’s occurring is a return to hearth and home — at least for a time. But what is traditional in such a story is not what Scribner delivers. His book, it turns out, is very much about something else.
There is an ongoing sense of foreboding that pervades the novel. There are no home fires burning — just fires, some still smoldering from the past, others waiting to be set. Injuries of the past remain as painful as ever.
Liz, Cole’s girlfriend from his youth, is visiting town. Her brother Kirk, who never left, is still a dangerous bully to her and to Cole. Kirk’s teenaged son befriends Daniel, although it slowly becomes evident that he has been aptly named Little Kirk.
Then there is the past of the Callahans as they struggled to build a home in that old white colonial house. Especially shattering is Cole’s coming to understand what he thought his function in that house was supposed to have been — and what it actually turned into: “This was his role in the family, to comfort his mother afterward, not to protect her before.”
“Old Newgate Road” is very much about abuse: its sway over time, its resilience over the years and its power over us to delude ourselves. Yet Keith Scribner also reminds us that salvaging a life — basically forgiving others and forgiving ourselves — “doesn’t happen in an instant — it’s not a simple decision, but an accumulation of generous acts, of kindness and taking care.”
Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.