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Baum On Books

Book Review: Orient- A Bohemian Tale Of Murder On Long Island

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It’s been suggested that Christopher Bollen called his new novel “Orient” not only because it’s set in the easternmost North Fork hamlet of Long Island but also because it’s about orientation, the way people look at life, and themselves. Orient is not the Hamptons, but it could be if city folk keep coming out in increasing numbers and buying up shorefront property and farmland.

What sets the novel apart from other narratives that pit long-time locals against newcomers, is its focus on Orient as a retreat for artists, many, emigrés from the competitive, money-mad art world which Bollen obviously knows well. But the novel is also an enticing murder mystery.

The story begins with a prologue on the last day of summer when 19-year-old Mills Chevern– not his real name– introduces himself as a guy on the run. A guy who, two months earlier, was a homeless, recovering druggie from California living in New York. There, he’s befriended by 47-year old Paul Benchley, who invites him to Orient to help fix up his family house. The story then shifts to the third-person and the discovery of two bodies. One is of the village caretaker, the other, a grotesque mutant creature, not human, whom residents believe has washed up from nearby Plum Island. Overnight, it would seem, “one of the safest, crime-proof zip codes on the eastern seaboard” has become a murder zone. The discovery of the bodies coincides, of course, with the arrival of Mills, seen as a stranger with a shady past.

Beth, an Orient native, likes Mills and tries to convince her moody Romanian artist husband - and the police – that the young man is not involved. But she had been living in the city for a while, before she returned to take up painting again, so maybe she can no longer be trusted. Meanwhile more bodies turn up and an arson fire kills a well known Orient family. Mills becomes the number one suspect, though the reader knows from the prologue that Mills is innocent.

So who is the killer? Bollen skillfully keeps shuffling the deck in this over 600-page tale, even if he keeps the game going on when too long when too few characters are left in play. But he can craft some wonderful images - the afternoon sun, for example, “streaming off the water, lightening the hair of passengers on the ferry until they look like candles on a wobbly cake.” Orient is billed as a thriller – bodies mount up right to the end – but it impresses mainly as a theme novel about class and cultural conflicts that turn on familial history and attitudes towards outsiders. Mills is gay, but the perspective that drives all the characters has to do with the way this distinct region on the East End of Long Island shapes beliefs and behavior. The North Fork is still more isolated and rural than the chic South Fork, and Bollen captures its charm and windswept beauty. But he also depicts its growing vulnerability as an un-Hampton that could forever change, and soon.