A ripped-from-the-headlines custody dispute is wrapped in a lyrical but creepy defense in Amity Gaige’s third novel, based loosely on the Clark Rockefeller kidnapping case. A divorced father casts the blame for his troubles all the way back to a teenage misdemeanor, after which he built a false life that’s now coming apart at the seams. But his abundant defense drives him deeper into denial.
By reinventing himself as Eric Kennedy on a summer-camp application, East German immigrant Erik Schroder takes the first step toward creating the all-American identity he thinks will protect him. Erik attributes most of his success in life to this deception, under which he got married and established a thriving real-estate business in Albany before the recession and his marriage’s disintegration. On a court-ordered visit with his daughter Meadow and fearing the loss of all visitation rights, Erik decides to take her on an unauthorized road trip to Vermont, but law enforcement tracks him almost from the beginning. Now imprisoned and having taken a vow of silence, Erik writes an account of the trip for his court-appointed lawyer, warped with his conviction that he’s really a good dad after all.
The long shadow of Lolita falls across Erik’s rapture over his great American road trip taken with a similarly illicit passenger, although his motives are nothing like Humbert Humbert’s. His misguided sense of protection is nearly as dangerous to her in the eyes of the law, but as with his name, he invests himself in the story of their road trip with no thought of its consequences. Erik unwittingly re-enacts his own childhood emigration in stealing moments with Meadow, but justifies himself in glib chapters addressed to his ex-wife by claiming he was the one truly invested in their relationship.
The function Erik’s real, buried identity plays in the kidnapping is just a red herring, but his brooding over it in his account of their trip feels arbitrary and disconnected. (Even the low-hanging fruit of the Kennedys as ur-Americans to the kids of Boston isn’t explored.) Gaige indulges her unreliable narrator too much in seeking absolution for his childhood capers, while indignant at the charges against him. His rationale for revealing this part of his past is as slim as his American life without proper identification is implausible; at the very least, Erik should have fired his lawyer before producing such an incriminating document. At times expressing his biography with the remove of an academic, Erik comes off as a remorseless monster the more he tries to burnish his image. Schroder may make readers’ skin crawl, but its handling of its main character is too gentle, its target out of focus.