There are three childhood friends at the center of “Grist Mill Road,” the second novel from Christopher J. Yates, the author of “Black Chalk,” an NPR Book of the Year from a couple of years ago. That intricately plotted book was very much about the literal and figurative games people play, and proved to be an eccentric, off-center hit. This new thriller is destined to achieve the same status.
In 1982, Roseborn, N.Y. — a beautiful little town about 90 miles north of New York City — is rocked by a seemingly baseless crime involving three young teens. In 2008, New York City is the setting for the three teens’ new lives, lives as enigmatically intertwined as their old ones have been.
Patrick McConnell is from the perfect middle–class family. He is being groomed to be the perfect child of the perfect father, destined for political greatness. Patch, as he is nicknamed, falls from that position as a result of his inaction during that horrific crime he stood aside and witnessed when he was 13.
Now he is approaching 40, having just been fired from a lucrative job because of the economic downturn. He is married to Hannah and, to make ends meet, he maintains a cooking website called Red Moose Barn, an enterprise he dreams of turning into a quaint, upscale, upstate restaurant. But now he must find a job, and he must stop following his former boss around the city.
Hannah Jensen is from a privileged family in the same town Patch’s family lives in. Yet money does not guarantee happiness for her or for her ne’er-do-well older brothers. Lonely and on the cusp of adolescence, she finds herself of growing interest to the boys at her school and, ultimately, the victim of the crime that begins the novel.
Now Hannah is a crime reporter for the New York Mail, able to deal with the most monstrous of crimes without blinking. In the early stages of her new life in New York City, she bumps into Patch at Grand Central Station and eventually marries him. Now he cooks for her most nights. Now they both are haunted by what Patch calls “the monstrous secret that paces the perimeter of our marriage, like something that prowls in the shadows, a dangerous creature awaiting its moment, the right time to strike.”
Matthew Weaver is a year older than Hannah and Patch. His mother works as a waitress at a local restaurant in that same small town. His father barely works and drinks up what money there is, paycheck to paycheck, as regularly as he brutalizes his son. Matthew is sent to jail for his part in the crime at the heart of the novel.
Now Matthew has changed his name. Now he is the entrepreneur behind St. Lawrence Supplies, which sources fine foods: “I try to keep my finger on the pulse of where food is headed, what ingredients might be in vogue in six months’ time.” Now Matthew has a business proposition for his old friend Patrick, whom he always used to call “Tricky.”
“Grist Mill Road” eventually returns to the scene of the original crime, as secrets are revealed from the shifting points of view of teen and adult Patrick, Hannah and Matthew. The novel’s suspense-filled conclusion is devastating and disquieting.
Readers, however, must be willing to forgive some dodgy coincidences, some wobbly logic and the novel’s descent into, well, some unpleasantness in its final pages. The reward for that forgiveness is witnessing Christopher J. Yates once again journey into some dark reaches of the human heart, even as he uncovers patches of abiding humanity along the way.
Steven Whitton is a retired professor of English.