The men in Joseph Guiteau’s family all met a tragic fate at the young age of thirty-four. Guiteau fled his Cincinnati, Ohio, home in an attempt to escape his tragic family history. He moved to New York City and became an actor. His thirty-fourth birthday is fast approaching in Christopher Bollen’s debut novel The Lightning People.
Bollen’s New York City is a metropolis transformed by the World Trade Center attacks, and his characters still bear the scars of that terrible day. The loss of the towers even affects the weather. Midwesterners transplanted to Manhattan are dying from lightning strikes. Guiteau believes he knows why, “The Manhattan skyline has changed since I moved here from Cincinnati at the age of eighteen. What no one seems willing to mention is that before the World Trade Center fell, lightning rarely struck any parts of Manhattan other than the towers themselves….” The towers served as lightning rods. Without them as protection, lightning is striking many young men and women, primarily from the Midwest. Is this coincidence or fate?
One thing you should know about Guiteau is that he is a conspiracy theorist, a trait he picked up from his mother, an American history professor. Guiteau goes to meetings where he meets others of his kind and where he discusses old and new theories. During a meeting, he meets a mysterious woman with a strange story of her own. Ultimately, their fates are intertwined. Bollen introduces other characters, as well. Guiteau marries Del, a snake expert at the Bronx Zoo so she can become a United States citizen. Del has a tragic history of her own; her former boyfriend was killed years earlier in a car accident. She then became involved with Raj, the brother of her best friend and college roommate, Madi. William, Guiteau’s actor friend, completes the circle. All Bollen’s characters have their own mini-dramas, making for several intriguing sub-plots that lead a suspenseful feel to the story. The Lightning People truly is a plot-driven novel.
Employing themes such as coincidence vs. fate, multiculturalism, love, and betrayal, Bollen creates complex, believable characters with the practice of a seasoned novelist. This does not feel like a first novel. He skillfully intersects multiple lives in shocking ways. Critics have compared the novel to the movie Crash, set in Los Angeles. However, I feel Bollen’s New York City works even better than LA to explore traversing lives. New York is built up, while LA is sprawling. New Yorkers primarily walk wherever they go, while people in LA drive. Interconnecting characters have a better chance of coming into contact in a city like New York than they would in LA. Bollen also gives readers fascinating facts about snakes. I do sense a sequel involving Del and snake research or at least I hope so (Christopher Bollen, are you reading this?)
Will Guiteau die at thirty-four or will he be the first to escape his fate? That is something for readers to find out themselves. My only criticism is that the fates of the characters are all foregone conclusions. The reader will understand what I mean, I suspect, after reading the novel. The true beauty is how Bollen tells the story. Overall, it is an astounding first novel with brilliant plot development and superbly crafted characters. Bollen does not seem like a first-time novelist. Keep your eye on him, dear reader, for he’s going places.