A well-heeled Wall Streeter, generally considered a good guy, agrees to throw a bachelor party at his suburban Westchester house for his slightly sleazy younger brother. With his wife and daughter in the city for the night, he allows — despite his own uneasiness — strippers at the bash.
This will not end well.
But we can’t predict just what a disastrous turn the party will take. Within the first few pages of The Guest Room, the latest novel by prolific author Chris Bohjalian, the booze-fueled bacchanalia that began as the fulfillment of men’s fantasies turns into a Helter-Skelter-like nightmare.
Two Russian bodyguards are dead. Two strippers are on the lam in an Escalade. The partiers are left staring in wide-eyed disbelief at a widening pool of blood that is soaking into the beige brocade couch, spattering the wallpaper and dripping down a semi-valuable painting of the Hudson.
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Bohjalian, whose books often explore the contrast between surface lightness and the darkness that lies below, takes on upper-middle class America in this novel, ripping apart any illusion of safety or moral high ground in a headlong collision between the comforting rituals of suburbia and the viciousness of the Russian mob.
The two young women — or are they girls? — are sex slaves, the men later learn, as the implications of the night sink in. Kidnapped in Russia as young teens and brought to the U.S. illegally, they were captives, forced into prostitution. And they killed the two hulking men with shaved heads — who watch over them to keep them from fleeing — to escape the fate of another slave who was murdered.
As he has in previous work, Bohjalian creates scenes with a cinematic quality (three of his books have been made into movies). Using his words as a lens, Bohjalian gives us a close-up of one of the young women, clad only in a thong, as she leaps onto the back of a guard and deftly slits his throat with a kitchen knife she grabbed from the countertop. Then he turns the lens around so we see the responses of the men, who have become buffoons in various stages of undress and inebriation, as they cower behind furniture in the expansive living room. They’re going to pay for this, he makes clear, some more deservedly than others.
For Richard Chapman, the mess of fear, blood, betrayal and sex may cost him everything: his marriage to Kristin, his relationship with his 8-year-old daughter, Melissa. His job, his friends, his standing in the community. How Richard and his wife deal with the fallout — and there is a lot of it, some from unexpected quarters — is a compelling story all on its own.
Though Bohjalian could have easily painted Kristin as the one-note, vengeful wife, he doesn’t. Kristin sees her marriage in shades of gray, not black and white, which makes her credible and sympathetic as she struggles to decide how to react.
And their daughter, smarter and more aware than both parents know, quickly does what kids do, researching sex slavery online and then scrubbing the browser history on the computer her parents monitor. But she’s also enough of a child to confess to her friends that she worries about the house being haunted by the ghosts of the two dead men.
Bohjalian also gives us an unfiltered dose of sex slavery through the eyes of dark-haired Alexandra, who recounts the way a Russian mobster chose her, singling her out as a preadolescent, systematically destroying her family, kidnapping and raping her into submission. Her deadened recitation of how she became a slave in the U.S. is hard to stomach, but it’s necessary to explain just how this crime continues to be perpetuated despite governmental vows to crack down on it.
Bohjalian also accomplishes what seems unlikely at the start of the book: he makes most of the characters understandable and even likeable. Yet he isn’t content simply to write a smartly plotted, page-turner. As he has in other books, such as Skeletons at the Feast (about the East Germans fleeing the oncoming Russian army) and The Sandcastle Girls (about the Armenian genocide), he also weaves social issues into his novels.
In The Guest Room, he has taken a tightly written suspense novel and used it as a stepping stone to discuss sex slavery. It is a problem, he writes, that exists in the shadows of society, exploiting the vulnerable and financed, sometimes unwittingly, by “regular guys” like Richard and his brother.
Step by step, Bohjalian brings us along on the education of Richard. As he begins to see beyond the lip-gloss sexuality that Alexandra exudes, he realizes that she looks closer to his daughter’s age than his own, with thin, goosebump-covered legs. He sees the fear beneath her knowing smile and begins to recognize his own part in her victimization.
This is Bohjalian’s goal, to teach while entertaining, to show us that every new day brings a new opportunity for climbing out of the dark and into the light. And he’s at his best in The Guest Room, one of his most compelling books so far, combining an explosive premise, a timely social topic and fast-paced storytelling with a purpose.
Amy Driscoll is a Miami Herald editor.