Published by Ballantine Books
Publication date: March 7th 2017
No doubt this must happen to everyone at a certain age: You look up for a moment and you’re not sure which life is read. You’ve split yourself into so many honeycombed parts that they barely notice each other—all of them pacing, concurrently, parallel streams of thought, and each one thinks of itself as me.
Dustin Tillman has a lot on his mind. His wife died less than a year ago and his relationship with his two sons seems to be drifting away. He’s a psychologist and has a new patient, Aqil, he can’t quite get a handle on. And now, his cousin Kate has called to let him know that his adopted brother, Rusty, is getting out of prison twenty-nine years after being convicted of murdering all of their parents. A conviction that was obtained through the specific testimony of Dustin and Kate, but has now been overturned by DNA evidence proving his innocence. This is Dustin’s world in Dan Chaon’s new novel, Ill Will. A world that is going to get a lot more complicated.
Yet, even given all these circumstances Dustin seems relatively unfazed by this latest news. In fact, he’s largely unruffled by almost anything. Instead, he exhibits a distracted air in much of his life and always has. He has been joked about within his family as being spacey—a fact Chaon highlights in Ill Will’s formatting by leaving many of Dustin’s sentences open. No ellipses of thought, no trailing off, just a stopping of whatever he might have been trying to say. This dreamier mental pace serves him well as a psychologist, allowing him to assess why Aqil is obsessed with a series of drowning deaths of college-age boys that have occurred in their area over the last decade, but won’t talk about his own past at all. Until, Aqil’s fixation becomes Dustin’s own and what was a harmless inattention begins to feel like negligence in and denial of his own life for some wild theories about serial killers.
Dustin is not the sole focus of Ill Will. Chaon makes use of his cousins, Kate and Wave; his younger son, eighteen-year-old Aaron, and even Rusty, as narrators. Not surprisingly, even going back to the summer of 1983, each has a very different story to tell. Chaon ups the creepy factor by tapping into a very real social phenomenon of those times: the belief that there were widespread Satanic cults committing heinous acts of ritual abuse throughout America. Some of Rusty’s teen behavior aligns with the sensationalistic news and is, ultimately, what Kate and Dustin say led him to murder four family members. Now, Rusty is out and has chosen Aaron as the only member of the family to contact. Aaron, who didn’t even know he had an uncle, much less one that murdered his grandparents.
Because there are so many ways a mystery can go I have to give credit to Ill Will for choosing an option that only works if the tale has been strong enough all along—that of the ambiguous ending. Whereas Dead Letters slammed an unexpected reality into my face, Ill Will insinuates right up until the very end. Throughout the novel Dustin Tillman is a vague figure—is he troubled? Dangerous? A dupe? Or the exact opposite of all these, the Keyser Söze of the novel? No spoilers from me. Suffice it to say, what I liked most about the novel was that Chaon made sure I wouldn’t stop reading until the last sentence and he did so not just with murder, but by delving into the always intriguing concept of reality, specifically how we perceive the world, ourselves, and how we are perceived. Scary stuff.