Norwegian by Night

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Here’s the premise of this book:  An 82-year-old, possibly demented Jewish guy from New York City moves to Oslo and shortly afterward has an adventure in which he tours the country with a small boy who is being pursued by bad guys.

This is not the stuff of your typical novel, but it turns out to be a fine read — well-written, carefully plotted and with a character for the ages.

The book’s star, Sheldon Horowitz, is invited by his granddaughter to join her and her husband, Lars, in Norway after the death of his wife.

His first reaction is what you might expect:

“Stuff it,” he tells the granddaughter.

He relents just a moment later when Rhea tells him she is expecting a baby, his great-grandchild.

So Sheldon travels to Norway, arriving in the long days of the early summer.  He speaks no Norwegian and is bewildered by the upbeat, easying Norwegians, including Rhea’s amiable husband.

Here is what the reader learns early on about Sheldon Horowitz.

— He was a Marine sniper during the American landing at Inchon in the Korean War.

— His beloved son and only child, Saul, died fighting in Vietnam.

— Everyone is worried that Saul has old-age dementia, although the grandson-in-law is not so sure.

These things may not sound like the stuff of great narrative, but they come back again and again and are fleshed out in much greater detail as the plot proceeds.

—–
When the book opens, Sheldon has been in Norway for three weeks.  He doesn’t speak the language, he doesn’t like being one of only 1,000 Jews in the whole country and he complains frequently.  When he learns that his granddaughter has had a miscarriage, he goes to his room and sobs, alone.
Also during this period, Sheldon hears loud fighting between a Balkan man and woman in the apartment upstairs.

One day, when Rhea and Lars are away, there is a particularly violent exchange. The woman leaves her apartment and winds up on Sheldon’s doorstep. He offers shelter to her and her small son. When the woman’s tormenter returns and kicks down the door, the woman refuses to leave or to hide. Sheldon and the son listen in a closet as she is killed.

Sheldon understands the child is in danger. His mother’s killer and several associates are outside the apartment complex, waiting. Sheldon takes the boy out the back way, and they go on the lam.

—–
For a man who spent his career repairing watches in New York, Sheldon shows himself to be quite resourceful, getting the boy out of the neighborhood, then out of Oslo and then around the southern part of the country, first in a “borrowed” boat and then a tractor.

The boy does not speak, and so Sheldon does the talking, rattling on about classic myths, the Torah, the New Testament (he calls the boy Paul) and Huck Finn’s adventures on the Mississippi.

Sheldon remembers and applies advice he heard as a young man from his drill sergeant. When he is perplexed, Sheldon has imagined conversations with his old friend, Bill, who needles Sheldon as he improvises his moves on the go.

In addition to the boy, Sheldon is accompanied by his regrets. He blames himself for his failure to save the boy’s mother, for the death of a friend in Korea and, most of all, for the loss of his son.

Back at home, the granddaughter and her husband worry.  They leave their apartment with the battered door and head to their rural cabin, hoping to find Sheldon there.

Meanwhile, a melancholy but careful police inspector studies the crime scene and begins her own search, assisted by a genial but less able colleague.

For all his aching joints and crotchety manner, Sheldon is funny, deeply human and ultimately noble.  If he is succumbing to dementia, well, we all should hope to handle such decline so well.

Note

Author Derek B. Miller studied the humanities in college and foreign policy afterward.  In his first book, “Norwegian by Night,” he uses his unusual background to construct what is technically called a crime story involving Americans, Norwegians and Balkan refugees.  This is not the sort of expertise that your typical MFA-in-writing author can bring to a novel.

Miller’s second book, pictured at right, was released this year.  It starts in the first Gulf War and then jumps 20 years with the return of an American soldier and a British newsman to Iraq.  This book also has been well-received.

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