Readers meet Eric, the narrator of Amity Gaige’s third novel, Schroder, in the immediate aftermath of his arrest for kidnapping his own daughter. “What follows is a record of where Meadow and I have been since our disappearance,” he writes from behind bars at the behest of his court-appointed lawyer. The same premise set the stage for Nabokov’s classic Lolita, but Eric’s tone veers sharply away from the manipulative self-defense of that book’s predatory raconteur, Humbert. Instead, this tale is a long, strange love letter to Eric’s estranged wife, Laura, providing a record of, in his mind, the magical days that ensued when he absconded with their six-year-old daughter, as well as the truth about his identity, which he’s hidden for decades.
“If it were just the two of us again,” Eric confesses to Laura at the end of his simple, captivating prologue, “sitting together at the kitchen table late at night, I would probably just call this document an apology.” Chapter by chapter, Eric reveals the dark, imploding core within his constructed identity. His invented name, nationality, family history, and personality were efforts to escape his demons; now, the past he sought to bury is all he has, and it consumes these pages in a furious, unremitting fire.
Born Erik Schroder, he renames himself as a teenager when, on a whim while filling out an application to summer camp, he calls himself Eric Kennedy and cites his birthplace as the fictitious town of Twelve Hills, close to Hyannis Port. For decades he leads people to presume he bears a distant but definite relation to the presidential family of the same name. The real, far less glamorous story involves a grim early childhood in Germany and an escape with his father to the U.S. He’s never known whether they left his mother behind or if she abandoned them first.
Without hesitation he trades his pitiful existence in a top-floor tenement in crowded Dorchester, Massachusetts, for the sunlit life of a Kennedy. This guise costs him his father, but the overwhelming allure of leaving the past behind outweighs any call of loyalty. After meeting Laura, he realizes that he can simply let go of his former unhappiness: “His body braced, his heart roused, he finally got it—the American secret—that the only person who could obstruct a man was himself.” He continues, even with Laura, the “elaborate and ultimately disastrous deceit” of his bogus identity because he believes his happiness firmly depends on it. Later, though, escaping with Meadow, he recognizes the advantage of possessing a German passport and a different last name.
In addition to providing the details of Meadow’s kidnapping, Eric relates memories of his fractured upbringing, illuminating how these two periods of his life connect and overlap. Habitually bullied as a boy, for instance, he describes his refusal to fight back: “I had been taught only to escape…I ran. I ran for a long, long time. I ran in a hysterical pattern that was random enough to lose anybody sane. Tearing my way through the weeds and broken tricycles and dirt yards of Dorchester, I didn’t even turn around to see if the boy was still behind me. I ran crazily, crisscrossedly, as some sort of artistic expression, now that I look back at it, of what it felt like to be me.” Later that evening, at home with his father, Eric tells him what happened. His father replies, “Of course you did not fight. It is not natural to stand and fight. The truth is, it’s natural to run.”
However imaginatively rendered Schroder might be, the novel has distinct parallels to the real life of Christian Gerhartsreiter , a German conman and convicted murderer. Gerhartsreiter successfully passed himself off as Clark Rockefeller and, in 2008, kidnapped his young daughter during a custody battle. He’s been quoted as describing the days following the kidnapping, before he was arrested, as “the best days” of his life. Although Gaige’s tightly hewn, colorful writing departs from that sensational news story (and made-for-television movie) in every other respect, at the heart of her novel lies the same sentiment.
Therein lies the trick—and mastery—of Schroder: this character’s sincerity evokes the reader’s mercy. Whatever his real name is, his voice is gripping beyond measure, and surprisingly entertaining. He—the anti-hero—has fabricated monstrous lies and, with Meadow’s abduction, committed a terrifying crime, but neither fact negates the authenticity of his love for his daughter and his inarguable desire to parent, nurture, and even protect her in ways that he himself has never known.
Amity Gaige will discuss Schroder at the twenty-fifth annual Southern Festival of Books held in Nashville October 11-13, 2013. All events are free and open to the public.