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Evocative story set in Missouri summer camp bears disturbing twist and unexpected tenderness
"The Inverted Forest" (Scribner), by John Dalton: Days before Kindermann Forest Summer Camp in the Ozarks is set to open, the director discovers his counselors drinking alcohol and skinny-dipping. Disgusted, he fires all of them, and then must scurry to find replacements before the first wave of campers arrives.
One of those replacements is Wyatt Huddy, a quiet young man with a genetic disfigurement; a gentle giant deeply concerned both that others will interpret his physical appearance as indicative of a mental disability, and that it actually is. And so he is surprised when the campers turn out not to be children but developmentally disabled adults. He is also uneasy about how many people will mistake him for another camper, and that he will have more in common with his charges than with the other counselors.
The first half of Dalton's book, set in 1996, is gorgeously written. Dalton introduces Wyatt with such care that it is impossible not to empathize with him. Seemingly without family, he lives and works at a Salvation Army store, where he imbues emotional significance into each donated article: "Sometimes the most inconsequential items could provoke him: a shoelace, for example, made in 1953 and perfectly sealed inside its paper and cellophane wrapper. What modest hopes its maker had once had for it. A shoelace. And what a sharp pang of regret for Wyatt to toss it forever unused into the Dumpster."
Wyatt's story bears some similarities to familiar coming-of-age camp narratives, and Dalton's lush descriptive passages are sure to evoke fond memories of that time. But then Dalton gives his plot a vicious, chilling twist ' and abruptly breaks away to Part Two, set 15 years later.
No doubt I was meant to feel disoriented by this shift in both time and perspective, but because the second half of the novel begins from the point of view of a minor and not very likable character, it took several chapters for me to regain my reading momentum.
And though I was slightly suspicious of Dalton's motives for the rest of the book, I admire the decision to tell the rest of Wyatt's story in this multiperspective way, and applaud his treatment of difficult subject matter without a shred of mawkishness.