Grist Mill Road by Christopher J. Yates

Grist Mill Road
by Christopher J. Yates
Picador, 2018

Grist Mill Road by Christopher J Yates.jpg

The game is called Houdini. Hannah, who's 13, leans against a tree in the Swangum Mountains of upstate New York. Matthew, almost 14, ties her in place with rope. Her goal is to break free. Patrick “Patch” McConnell, the 12-year-old narrator who opens Christopher J. Yates' new thriller Grist Mill Road, is also the third wheel. Matthew sends the younger boy off to play a new game, Reconnaissance. He wants time alone with Hannah to, presumably, do what teens do.

On this hot Wednesday in August, 1982, Matthew lifts a Red Ryder BB gun. More than half of the forty-nine metal pellets fired hit Hannah. Patrick, watching from a short distance away, is too stunned to react. “When Matthew pulled the trigger the forty-ninth and final time,” Yates explains, his blunt prose throttling readers onward, “there was only half a scream, a sharp yelp that died quickly in Hannah's throat.” The boys bolt, leaving the victim bleeding out from a ruined left eye.

Flash forward to New York City, 2008. Patrick has recently lost his high-finance job. He channels the frustration of not finding a new job into his food blog. With enough web traffic and support, perhaps Patch will someday open a restaurant. Or maybe he'll continue to casually stalk his former boss, Don Trevino, around the city. Either way, mid-life is playing rough. At least his wife, Hannah, is there for him.

Yes, Hannah. She survived the shooting, grew up to become a crime reporter, and somehow married one of the boys who nearly killed her. This reveal, pages after an opening that would make Stephen King twitch, illustrates that Yates' latest has cavernous misery to spare, and we'll be heading into deeper dark.

Grist Mill Road proceeds to detail Patch and Hannah's struggling marriage. While she suffers night terrors, he's become a chrysalis of despair. The idea of working in his field ever again shrivels, and his imagined future as a restaurateur grows. And like with the best thrillers— The Talented Mr. Ripley comes to mind—Yates' protagonist and place are inextricable. He embellishes the fragility of Patch's inner transformation with a glimpse into his day; walking the city, clinging to invisibility, and living far away in his mind:

Patrick heads uptown and east, his route a boxy zigzag as he tries to avoid the red hands of the crosswalks, only getting caught at the curb a couple of times. He likes it when the lights fall kindly for him—recently things as small as this have become capable of making or breaking his days.

The traffic slides around him like blocks of a puzzle, pictures coming together and then dismantling again across the vast grid of Midtown Manhattan.

As he walks, he thinks about the perfect abandoned barn he has conjured up in his imagination. He thinks about its restoration, helping out in overalls, tired limbs satisfied at the end of the day. And there it stands, finished, the words RED MOOSE BARN printed on a wooden sign that hangs by the road, the red silhouette of a moose beneath the words, the same symbol they will stamp onto menus, cards, brown paper napkins.

Of course, Patch is criminally relatable. But soon we get chapters from Hannah and Matthew's perspectives. Yates colors in his damaged trio (mostly) from a palette of contrasts: hardworking and sleazy, blue collar and white, straight and... not so straight. Extended flashbacks to 1982, in which teens rip into each other verbally, makes me crave a more sprawling, dedicated period piece from Yates. One scene, in which a character is sexually awakened by bedroom posters of both Michael Jackson and John Travolta, is Guilty Pleasure Defined.  

Yates acknowledges—but doesn't lean on—the suppressed queerness that's so often a crutch in thriller fiction. Bigotry drives Grist Mill Road's passionate violence, yet the overarching tension comes from how and why Matthew might reenter Patch and Hannah's lives. By the end, Yates has dispelled the specter of the gay psycho. He instead hints at domesticity's insidiousness. When Patch, Hannah, and a dripping piece of steak get weird, you may wonder if they're heading for an orgy of Gone Girl-style schlock.

Another pleasant surprise, especially if you're a nature buff, is the exploration of the geological forces that shaped upstate New York. I honestly never thought I'd encounter a metaphor about erratics—rocks carried across continents by glaciers and then dropped when the ice melts—in popular fiction. Yet it's beautifully placed, making Grist Mill Road an achievement of both horrid torque and studied intricacy.

Justin Hickey is a freelance writer living in Boston and completing his first science fiction novel.