A Mazelike Gothic Novel, Intelligent and Intense

When Danny was a kid, he and his cousin Howie—an awkward, overweight, nerdy sort of boy who didn’t really fit

When Danny was a kid, he and his cousin Howie—an awkward, overweight, nerdy sort of boy who didn’t really fit in—used to play together at family gatherings. But one day, Danny, following his older cousin Rafe (“not the oldest cousin but the one they all listened to”), led Howie down into a mazelike cave somewhere on his family’s property, pushed him into an underwater pool and left him there.

Why? Danny himself could never begin to explain it, and Jennifer Egan’s narrator hardly thinks it’s worth the effort: “Wondering why Danny’s older cousin had so much power over him is like wondering why the sun shines or why the grass grows. There are people out there who can make other people do things, that’s all.”

Danny and Rafe returned to the picnic and said nothing to anyone, not even by late afternoon when the adults noticed that Howie was missing. Not even when they launched the search parties. Not even three days later, when Howie was discovered, semi-conscious, in the cave—a different Howie, though, who couldn’t sleep with the lights out or be alone in a room without his mother, and whose nerdy sweetness was gone forever. Suddenly transformed into a sullen, self-destructive adolescent, Howie started taking drugs, acquired a gun and tried to rob a 7-Eleven, and ended up in reform school.

And still, Danny never told.

Flash-forward some 20 years: Howie has straightened out, become a bond trader, made a fortune, gotten married, had kids and retired at 34. Danny has gone nowhere, accomplished nothing and spent most of his energy avoiding certain memories.

When Howie calls Danny out of the blue and asks him to fly to Eastern Europe to help renovate an old castle he’s bought, Danny—unemployed and without other options—decides to go. Which is where Ms. Egan’s contemporary Gothic novel begins, at about 2 a.m., with Danny miserably lugging his suitcase and satellite dish (for cell and Internet reception) several miles to the castle after waiting in some weird European village for a bus that never arrives.

As soon as the current situation and history are established—or perhaps even a little earlier—Ms. Egan introduces another character, her first-person narrator, Ray. Or rather, Ray introduces himself. Ray is writing this story, which he describes as “just stuff a guy told me,” for the writing class he’s taking in prison (Ray is serving time for murder). At first he was only interested in the class because it meant time away from his cell, but now, a few weeks later, he’s developed a crush on the writing coach, Holly, who obviously thinks Ray has some talent, and he starts to work seriously on his manuscript.

Ray tells his story from Danny’s perspective, though he makes it clear that he himself is not Danny. This sets us up for the main exercise of this mazelike novel, which is to figure out what happened and is happening through the perspectives of two unreliable narrators: Ray, the convicted murderer who writes; and Danny, the ne’er-do-well whose point of view Ray has adopted.

At the castle, the motley group of would-be renovators include Howie (who reintroduces himself to Danny as “Howard”); Howard’s wife, Ann, and their son; an undifferentiated batch of graduate students; and finally Mick, Howard’s No. 2 man. Mick is clearly a man with a past, tattooed all over not only with ink but with the telltale “tracks” of a drug addict. His relationship with Howard seems inexplicable until you remember that Howie had spent a number of years in reform school, and that the devoted Mick—as loyal to Howard as the ghoulish Renfield was to Dracula—is a relic of that long-ago time.

Danny, whose whole life has been spent anticipating Howard’s revenge, is wary of them all; “paranoid” would not be too strong a word, particularly in the creepy atmosphere of the decrepit 900-year-old castle, which is, unbelievably, still occupied by a baroness in her 90’s—the last descendant of the von Ausblinker family, which built it.

The baroness lives in the keep—a tower-like structure unattached to the castle, which once served in wartime as an impregnable shelter—and explains to Danny, whom she uncharacteristically invites into the keep: “‘I will never leave this place. I am this place. I am every person who has lived here for nine hundred years. It’s beyond ownership. It simply is.’

“The idea caught in Danny: all those generations. At times he had trouble even believing that one chain of days connected his first day in New York to this day, right now.”

Underneath the keep, the baroness tells him, is the ancient dungeon, complete with weapons and instruments of torture, located inside a series of underground tunnels that only she knows how to navigate. The baroness is aware that Howard would give anything to get to it: “Imagine if he could show his tourists that! But he has no idea of how to find it.”

Nor, she adds, will she ever reveal it. “You may tell [your cousin] that,” she instructs Danny, who does.

Well, of course Danny stumbles onto a map of the tunnels (this is, after all, a Gothic novel), and reports this to Howard, who cannot contain his excitement long enough to wait till morning to get in there and start exploring. He takes the entire crew with him, including his wife and child, Benjy, and of course Mick, and Danny too. You would think that Howard had had enough of dark tunnels and caves, but his childhood trauma seems to be the farthest thing from his mind—until Benjy becomes frightened and Danny and Ann take him back to the cave entrance—to find it sealed. On the other side of the barricade, they hear the old baroness cackling away, with no intention of ever letting them out.

Upon hearing this news, the carefully constructed Howard disappears and little Howie returns, terrified to the point of disintegration, incoherent except for a repeated wail: “Danny! Danny! Danny help me, please let me out! Danny please, I’ll do anything …. I’ll give you anything you want …. Don’t leave me here!”

And that’s as far as I’m going to take you, because the rest—the unpredictable part—is what makes this novel the intelligent, intense and remarkably intuitive work that it is.

The best parts, by far, belong to Ray, whose impervious toughness gradually softens as he continues writing and falling for Holly, his teacher. Ray, we know from the start, “coulda been somebody,” as Marlon Brando so famously said in On the Waterfront. But we also understand, more and more clearly as the book progresses, that Ray’s flaws and weaknesses are way too huge to be overcome by his intelligence, talent and compassion.

This is not the kind of novel in which the protagonist grows stronger and wiser and is finally transfigured. Despite the supernatural and fantastic aspects of Ms. Egan’s Gothic plot, at its core is a harsh realism: The protagonist grows stronger and wiser, all right, but not nearly enough to change his life.

In one scene toward the end of the book, Ray is in the prison hospital, where Holly visits him, and he tells us: “I get a flash of some kind of life we could’ve had—barbecues, dogs, kids flopping over us in bed—it rolls through me fast but strong and clear, like one of those cooking smells that blows in the window so sharp you can pick out the ingredients. And then it’s gone.”

No happy endings here. Instead, Jennifer Egan gives us the satisfying thunk of a fully understood, if unexpected, kind of sense.

Nan Goldberg reviews books for The Boston Globe and writes a monthly column for nyc-plus.

A Mazelike Gothic Novel, Intelligent and Intense