Ill Will by Dan Chaon is one of the darker books I've read in recent memory, but if you tend to equate “darkness” in a book or film with over-the-top gore and violence—for example the always reliable Chuck Palahniuk, or George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire—you might be surprised by what you find here. The horror in Ill Will is the psychological kind that burrows under your skin and festers—it makes for a sometimes uncomfortable and always unputdownable read.
The novel is concerned with Dustin Tillman, who found his parents and aunt and uncle murdered as a young boy, and is still dealing with the repercussions of that incident as a middle-aged psychologist and father of two boys whose wife is dying of cancer.
Meanwhile, Rusty, Dustin's stepbrother whom Dustin testified against during the trial after the killings, is cleared and released from jail thanks to the aid of the Innocence Project. After his wife dies, Dustin lets a patient draw him into his obsessive investigation of a series of drownings. So those dual mysteries propel the plot: Who killed Dustin's family? Are these drownings even murders and if so who is the killer?
As we read, we're let into Dustin's psyche little by little. Chaon makes really good use of devices like leaving sentences unfinished and splitting pages into columns to signify Dustin's distracted, detached worldview. We become suspicious of Dustin just before other characters in the book do, and our suspicion morphs into some mix of pity/dread/anxiety/fear (i.e. "ill will") early enough that what unfolds at the end of the book feels true, inevitable and sad. There's barely a shred of redemption here, buts it feels brave and almost refreshing for an author to withhold the resolution we expect in a story like this.
One book I’d compare Ill Will to is the more obscure but no less disturbing Mira Corpora by Jeff Jackson, which also makes effective use of devices that most writers would shy away from, and employs a childhood trauma backstory that on its face seems conventional to unexpected and devastating effect.
Dan Chaon will be visiting the Main Branch of Mentor Public Library at 6:300pm on Wednesday, May 17. He will give a reading from his book and have a Q&A session to follow. Please register to attend: online or by phone (440) 255-8811, ext. 247.