Review: Christopher Bollen’s ‘Orient’

Orient. Christopher Bollen. Harper. 609 pages. $26.99.
Orient. Christopher Bollen. Harper. 609 pages. $26.99.

In Orient, real estate can be murder. Or at least that’s the way things seem in Christopher Bollen’s dark, atmospheric new novel, which pits summer residents against year-rounders, old-timers against anti-development forces, the familiar face against the stranger. Enemies can be anywhere when wealth is at stake, especially once the bodies of your neighbors begin to pile up.

Set in a real-life town on the tip of Long Island — a terrific, isolated setting that Bollen uses to great effect — Orient opens as the season is ending and the summer people are beginning to head back to the city. Moving in the opposite direction is Mills Chevern (not his real name, he tells us in the prologue). A 19-year-old former foster kid from Modesto who made his way to New York City and binged on drugs, Mills has luckily befriended middle-aged architect Paul Benchley, who grew up in Orient. His parents dead, Paul needs help cleaning out his family’s estate, and Mills needs somewhere to live and something to do so he won’t fall back into bad habits.

But as an outsider, Mills immediately draws the distrust of many of the year-round residents, not necessarily because he’s gay but because of his sketchy past. The edginess grows when the town handyman is found drowned and a frightening mutant creature washes up onshore, possibly refuse from a research lab long suspected of vile biological experiments. After a second suspicious death, Mills finds himself a suspect.

Editor at large of Interview magazine and author of the novel Lightning People, Bollen excels at characterization, not only in his sharp depiction of the wary Mills but also through his portrait of Beth Shepherd, who has returned to the island with her artist husband to start a family. Having abandoned her own work, Beth no longer is sure she wants kids; Bollen is empathetic to her anguished indecision.

Bollen uses the big canvas not only to draw fully realized portraits of Mills and Beth, who become friends, but also to examine the gulf between the haves and have nots and to play with the audience’s trust. Is Mills what he says he is? What about everybody else? Bollen keeps you guessing until the end of this intriguing, fatalistic novel.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.