Dan Chaon's latest book, 'Ill Will,' is a disturbing read
March 12, 2017 12:00 AM
"Ill Will," by Dan Chaon.
By Dominic DeAngelo
“‘It’s nothing. Sometimes a dead bird is just a dead bird’ ” is a quote in Dan Chaon’s newest thriller, “Ill Will.” It’s something Jill, the protagonist’s wife, tells her husband Dustin as a dead robin falls in front of them on the sidewalk. Although the phrase is only mentioned at the beginning of the book, it stuck with me. Mr. Chaon circles around, bats, pricks and prods at it until you’re not sure which way is up or down. This, along with its extremely unsettling content, makes “Ill Will” the most disturbing novel I’ve ever read.
By Dan Chaon Ballantine Books ($28).
“Ill Will” follows the family of Dustin Tillman, a psychologist in his early 40s living in suburban Cleveland. Dustin’s current life situation suddenly turns sour as he gets word that his adopted brother Rusty was released from prison after being cleared of brutally murdering Dustin’s parents, aunt and uncle 30 years earlier on a camping trip. He’s also dealing with life-altering troubles at home and an ex-cop patient by the name of Aquil. All these occurrences turn his world into a whirlwind of mental chaos that affect him and everyone in his family.
Mr. Chaon makes you question what parts of that mental chaos is factual and what isn’t as he intertwines the past with present, giving different perspectives from different characters, some in first person narration and some in third. Even the layout of the text gives segments a very disjointed vibe as he fills pages with double columned narrations, email correspondence and text message snippets. It can be very gimmicky at times, but it gives the reader a very shaky ground to stand on, which is exactly how Mr. Chaon wants it.
You’ll initially approach most of the characters in “Ill Will” with empathy, sympathy and relatability until Mr. Chaon casually throws a jarring disclosure into a paragraph, knocking you off your heels and causing your outlook to do a complete 180. The same treatment can go for characters on the other side of the coin.
Although the story primarily revolves around Dustin’s life, you’ll find yourself trying to pinpoint who this tale is truly about. I honestly didn’t make a solid determination until the final 10 pages, and even after completing the book, my own assessment could still be up for debate (again, adding to the chaos).
That being said, Dustin’s son Aaron’s journey is arguably the most intriguing of all, as you see him learn from his father’s own shortcomings while at the same time faltering from his own drugged out stupor that distorts his own particular narrative, frustrating and chilling the reader in one fell swoop.
However, the toughest part to trudge through in “Ill Will” was by far the content contained. The murdering of parents didn’t even scratch the surface as far as the skin-crawling creepiness goes. Anything seedy, sexual, and satanic you can think of, Mr. Chaon manages to conjure it up through the course of the novel. He doesn’t take his foot off your throat until the very end.
Reading “Ill Will” will make you question Mr. Chaon’s intentions with the book title. Although “Ill Will” puts you through the unsavory ringer, there is no questioning Mr. Chaon’s writing chops. That dead bird is definitely a dead bird.
Dominic DeAngelo is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.
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