Your son and his cousin have killed someone. They didn’t mean to do it, of course — what 15-year-old boys would plan to light on fire a homeless person sleeping in an ATM cubicle? They’re good boys, basically. You strongly suspect it was the cousin’s idea. But your brother, no doubt, blames your son. The four of you —you and your wife, your brother and his wife — agree to meet for dinner and decide on a course of action. What’s a loving parent to do?
That’s the premise of Dutch writer Herman Koch’s insouciant sixth novel. I must confess that if police were hot on my son’s heels, and my brother was a famous politician about to be anointed prime minister, I probably wouldn’t choose a public restaurant for this particular family discussion, no less one where four fancy courses would be elaborately, painstakingly served. But that’s part of the novel’s black humor. Already an international bestseller with more than a million copies sold, this tongue-in-cheek page-turner demands that you turn the pages past a lot of material that is only tangentially related to the arresting plot.
Paul Lohman, who narrates The Dinner, is a bitter man. He loathes his much more successful brother, Serge. “With every fiber of his being,” Paul says, “Serge had remained a yokel, a boorish lout.” Everything Serge does — including magnanimously adopting a boy from Africa — strikes Paul as infuriatingly false. Paul is amazed that his pretty sister-in-law can tolerate Serge. “I would have paid a fortune to see and hear just once how things went in the bedroom between him and Babette. On the other hand, there is a part of me that would actually resist that with every fiber of my being, that would pay an equally great fortune never to have to find out.”
Paul hates most everything: the restaurant’s food, the waiter, the decor, the music on the radio, corn on the cob. Fired from his job as a high school history teacher for expressing some of his more marginal opinions about, for instance, the victims of World War II, Paul particularly hates liberals such as his erstwhile school principal, who “was probably against global warming and injustice in general. Perhaps he didn’t eat the flesh of mammals and was anti-American or, in any case, anti-Bush: the latter stance gave people carte blanche not to think about anything anymore.”
Koch presents Paul as a model of the Dutch personality: outwardly mild and diffident, yet inwardly seething and about to blow. Much of the novel’s best comedy attacks Dutch mediocrity and predictability. Paul imagines his brother displaying his poor table manners at the White House. “ ‘He’s from Holland,’ they would say — or perhaps only think to themselves, which was even worse. That sense of vicarious shame was a constant. Our being ashamed of our prime ministers was the only feeling that created a seamless connection between one Dutch administration and the next.”
The only things Paul admires are his wife and son. He will do anything to defend them. Anything. Evidence-tampering, certainly. Maybe worse. There’s a bank surveillance tape that shows the two boys impishly hurling objects at the smelly vagrant. Luckily, you can see only their shoes — at least until the adopted African son, also along that fateful evening, provides a better video and becomes a blackmailer. The unfortunate event threatens not just the children’s lives, but also Serge’s career.
Reaching this material takes a long time. First, we must get past aperitif, appetizer, etc. Readers will find Paul’s shaggy-dog set pieces about the restaurant either delightful amuse-bouches or insubstantial. Pretentious foodies seem like an easy target, likewise the outrageous bills at snooty emporiums. The material about modern parenthood — our stubborn defense of our children, our deep compulsion to believe that they can do no wrong — is the novel’s most interesting, and it deserves more prominence. By the time we get to the surprising denouement, which Koch sets in motion with gleeful speed, both meal and novel are basically done.
Think of Paul as a Dutch Larry David, pointing out the absurdities of our privileged daily lives. The difference between the provocateurs is that we laugh at and with David. About most of Paul’s snide comments, we do neither, mostly because too much is at stake for the lightness of the jokes. Imagining David riffing about a murder is hard. Not that it’s impossible to joke about serious matters (see Lolita and that particular unsavory unreliable narrator). But Koch’s attempt at tonal complexity often comes off as tonal muddiness.
Lisa Zeidner reviewed this book for The Washington Post.