Sheldon Horowitz is a retired, widowed New York watchmaker in his 80s, with an enlarged prostate and a bad attitude. He is a proud American, to the point of jingoism, served in the Korean War and encouraged––practically coerced––his only child, his son Saul, to volunteer to go to Vietnam, where Saul was killed in action.
Now Sheldon is alone in the world, except for his granddaughter, Rhea. Rhea believes that Sheldon has dementia and twists his arm to move in with her and her husband–––in Oslo, Norway. Born too late to fight in World War II, Sheldon holds a grudge against Europeans for their failure to do anything to protect their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust. Now, here he is living among them, in a country with a total of only 1,000 Jews. About all that can be said in favor of the Norwegians, Sheldon thinks, is that they all seem to speak English.
Rhea and Lars own a multi-family building in a neighborhood that has spent too long on the cusp of gentrification. Sheldon has his own small apartment downstairs. There is one other apartment, whose tenants are a woman from the Balkans and her small son. Every now and then, a man shows up and there are loud arguments. One day when Rhea and Lars are out, the fight suddenly becomes violent, the man murders the woman and Sheldon is on the run with the silent boy, whom he calls Paul.
On the run with Paul, Sheldon is pursued by the murderer, the Norwegian police and his own demons, who torment him with his real and imagined memories of Saul, and with the conviction that Sheldon is responsible for Saul's death. That makes the book sound deadly serious, but many of Sheldon's musings are laugh-out-loud funny, and dementia or no dementia, he eludes his pursuers with outlandishly clever maneuvers.
Sheldon is such a rich character, with his crankiness and knee-jerk intolerance a thin veneer over his overwhelming regret and desire to be a better man. But the book is populated with several other vivid characters; from the murderer, Enver, a man who might have been something very different if the war in Kosovo hadn't turned him into a member of a death squad; to Sigrid, the no-nonsense police detective who has at least as many strong opinions about the Norwegians as Sheldon; to a galaxy of of smaller roles.
It's almost impossible to categorize this book. It's like a mash-up of Nordic police procedural, father/son story and road trip story, with lacings of thought-provoking observations on immigration policy and the poisonous persistence of violence from the war(s) in the Balkans. To manage all that in just 300 pages, to have it all flow so well and to play on so many different emotions is an impressive feat for any writer. For a debut novelist, it's particularly impressive and makes me eager to see what Derek Miller will do next.
Note: Though Derek Miller is American, sometimes Sheldon and Rhea's language sounds more like British English than American. I understand that the manuscript was translated into Norwegian and published in Norway before being published in Australia, the UK and the US and I wonder if that circuitous publication history somehow affected the writing style.