To follow up "Heaven Lake," his widely praised debut set in China, novelist John Dalton of the University of Missouri- St. Louis has chosen a location much closer to home: a summer camp in the Missouri Ozarks.
But the proximity of Kindermann Forest Camp doesn't necessarily make the setting seem any less exotic, given what goes on there.
As "The Inverted Forest" opens, it's the summer of 1996 and camp director Schuller Kindermann has just fired most of his staff for cavorting nude around the swimming pool two days before the initial group of campers is supposed to arrive.
His hastily hired replacement crew has a big surprise, though. Instead of watching over children, as they had expected, they learn that the summer's first crop of campers is made up of adults with severe developmental disabilities.
After letting that shock sink in, Dalton details the activities, appearances and quirks of many of the campers and counselors, but he focuses on two of the emergency hires.
First is Wyatt Huddy, whom we first meet at his job at a Salvation Army store before he shows up at camp. The second is Christopher Waterhouse, whose application to be a lifeguard was at first rejected.
The fates of Huddy and Waterhouse will intertwine in a strange scene, foreshadowed skillfully. As he introduces us to the campers, counselors and others at Kindermann, Dalton cleverly creates an undercurrent of unease, an almost Hitchcockian feeling that something bad is about to happen. And eventually it does, though some readers may get impatient and feel it takes a little too long to take place.
And it's all a result of what camp nurse Harriet Foster, who serves almost as the conscience of the novel, calls terrible decisions that lead inevitably one from another until finally the entire situation gets away from those in charge.
Then, the action shifts forward 15 years, to St. Louis in 2011, where Dalton introduces more surprises, and readers may find that what they thought they understood about the novel may not precisely be true.
It's all part of an overall theme of uncertainty and regret, one that is best expressed by Kindermann's musings on his life's work, about what he views as "a peculiar irony at work in the world: what you lack will always be magnified by the people and events that constitute your life. A boy with no appreciation for food will be born into a family of cooks and live above a bakery. A woman who feels no kindness for her children will see, everywhere she goes, mothers and fathers fawning over their babies. So it was with him. He'd gravitated to a career as a summer camp director. All his life he'd been exasperated by other people's unwise longings."
"The Inverted Forest" doesn't always work. The large number of characters that Dalton introduces sometimes make it hard to keep track of them all, and the ending isn't totally satisfying. But the premise is original, and anyone who has ever spent time at a camp in the Ozarks will find familiar situations presented in a seemingly friendly but ultimately unsettling way.
And you're certain to remember it the next time you're thumbing through camp catalogs or labeling underwear as the time approaches to put your kids on the bus.
Dale Singer is a staff writer for the St. Louis Beacon.
'The Inverted Forest'
A novel by John Dalton
Published by Scribner, 325 pages, $25
On sale Tuesday