"Norwegian by Night,” by Derek B. Miller, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pp., $26
Where does eccentricity end and dementia begin? When do an old man’s stories of the past provide glimpses into a long-hidden self, and when do they attest to that self’s unraveling?
To say that Derek B. Miller’s debut novel, "Norwegian By Night" explores these questions might wrongly suggest a novel whose plot feels more concerned with advancing a line of philosophical inquiry than in telling a good story. But the admirable thing about this thriller is that its intellectual concerns arise so effortlessly from its character drama and plot twists that you might not even notice that the ride it wants to take you on is as intellectual as it is emotional -- though the novel might ultimately be more satisfying if you did.
“Norwegian by Night” opens with 82-year-old Sheldon Horowitz sitting on an Oslo park bench, offering up political opinions and cultural critiques inspired by the American hot dog: “World War I. We were angry at the Germans, so we punished them by renaming their food. Better than the War on Terror. We’re angry with the terrorists, so we punish the French by renaming our own food.” His granddaughter, Rhea, admonishes her mild-mannered Norwegian husband not to egg Sheldon on - for Rhea, like her recently deceased grandmother, is sure that he is unhinged.
The novel, then, should probably make the reader at least suspect the same. The family’s concern is founded on Sheldon’s decades-late assertion that he’d been a sniper in the Korean War, rather than a functionary, and his paranoiac conviction that he’s now being tracked by North Koreans for having “killed twelve men named Kim from the top of a seawall at Inchon.” But while they take these symptoms as evidence of dementia, they all point so clearly to post-traumatic stress disorder that we start to feel that these unrealistically thickheaded characters are actually just props to keep the action moving.
As such, they serve quite well. When Sheldon’s wife dies, just months before the novel opens, Rhea announces that she is pregnant and successfully pressures Sheldon to leave New York and join her and Lars in the gentrifying Oslo neighborhood of Troyen.
Miller, who is himself an American living in Oslo, writes about the city with the familiarity of a local and the observational eye of an outsider, particularly when it comes to the manners and proclivities of its denizens. Sheldon passes the time remarking upon a people whose facial expressions seem to be permanently set into “blank stares,” who blithely spring for $12 ice cream cones and who speak a language that “sounds like English spoken backward.” Sheldon finds Norway to be bizarrely, unconvincingly serene and, increasingly, downright unsettling.
Underlying Sheldon’s disgust with Norwegians is their ignorance about Jews and Jewishness. The man who would forever lament having been too young to fight the Nazis and who enlisted in the Korean War with “a chip on his Jewish shoulder the size and shape of Germany,” as the narrator puts it, is fairly obsessed with European guilt and its contemporary opposite: its utter ignorance about Jews. As he has declared to Rhea and Lars:
“The Norwegians do not know what a Jew is. They only think they know what a Jew is not… Jews, the Norwegians have been taught, are not greedy, duplicitous, weak, pale, sneaky, plotting, impotent, salacious, or mendacious. They are not scheming, evolutionarily inferior to the Nordic blond, not working on secret plots to overthrow the world. They have been taught this so they can grow up to be nice liberals with their ears flushed of bad old Nazi propaganda... So, despite being here - or somewhere, anyway - for three thousand years, all they think of when they hear the word ‘Jew” is the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian fiasco.”
But Norway, Sheldon soon learns, has more immediate sociopolitical concerns than working through its Jewish problem, and Miller channels his experience as an international policy consultant into the novel, turning what could have been a narrow character drama into a story rich with political context.
Trauma and ethnic divisions
Since the bitter Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, Norway has been inundated with refugees from the Balkans - along with their lingering traumas and ethnic divisions. Though the roots of their problems lay elsewhere, they are alive and well not just on Norwegian shores, but right there in Rhea and Lars’ apartment building. One night, Sheldon is kept awake by sobbing and a vicious fight “in some Balkan language” in the apartment upstairs, and the next day when he’s alone at home, he finds a desperate woman at the door with her terrified young son by her side.
In a sequence as tense and suspenseful as one finds in the best thrillers, Sheldon hastens them inside to hide from both “the monster upstairs” and the suspicious characters loitering in the white Mercedes parked outside. But when the monster breaks down the door and charges into the apartment, the woman - whose “trampy shirt” and thin jacket “bespeaks a lower-class Balkan immigrant” - pushes her son toward Sheldon to hide. Not long after, on the other side of the bedroom door, through the closet that the little boy soils in fear, Sheldon and the boy hear the chilling sounds of struggle.
This terrifying scene launches one of the most memorable and idiosyncratic itineraries through Norway that anyone - real or fictional - has probably ever taken. Sheldon is rightly convinced that the man who killed the boy’s mother’s is now after her son. Told through shifting points of view, the rest of the novel traces Sheldon’s inimitably bizarre survival plan that has him hijacking tractors and breaking into cabins across Norway’s rural countryside through long summer days and placid nights. Trailing Sheldon and the boy he treats with increasing fondness are a host of colorful secondary characters, including a sharp female police chief inspector and her team of officers whose harebrained antics, while amusing, might feel more at home in a P.G. Wodehouse novel.
And though the “Huckleberry Finn”-quoting note Sheldon leaves at the murder scene points to nothing if not delusions of grandeur, it turns out that the old maxim is right: Just because he’s paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after him. And just because he has a hero complex doesn’t mean he won’t turn out to be a hero.
Rich psychological thriller
It seems a successful psychological thriller can fit into either of two camps: Those driven by dark and idiosyncratic psychology or and those driven by an inability to resist excessive plot twists. In its exploration of the limits of sanity, “Norwegian by Night” seems to be reaching for the distant star of a rich psychological thriller, but it is held back by its skittish relationship to the dark side of human nature.
In the world of “Norwegian by Night,” the bad guy is bad, his cronies are predictably half-bad, our hero is good (if disturbed), and the little boy he’s spirited away is an illegible cipher who feels more like a sketch than a fully imagined person. The basic plot pieces beg for something heavy: Our hero has kidnapped a young boy, he’s been replaced as the man in his granddaughter’s life by a sweet-tempered Aryan gentleman, he has survived both his wife and his son, and he is plagued by memories of serving in Korea. So why does the novel leave such a light trace as we quickly turn its pages, and why are we so quick to conclude that Sheldon’s not threatening, just traumatized and eccentric? What would “Norwegian by Night” look like if it did dwell more deeply in the dark?
What if, instead of positing an entire biography to explain away Sheldon’s apparent biographical inconsistencies, the novel allowed for more psychological slipperiness? What if Sheldon had a dark side that evaded historical explanation? What if we truly feared what this consummate outsider, this wounded, hypercritical Jew, might do to individual members of a people he describes as the blankly-staring population of “a House of Wax”? What if he disdained them as much as he entertains himself by saying he does?
If the novel were to spirit us into the darkness as much as it does into that luminous Norwegian light, its dalliances with menace wouldn’t be quite as easy to shake off, and we’d close the book mulling over its psychological insights as much as we relish its cultural observations.
Ilana Sichel is a writer, editor and translator based in New York.