Where Paradise is Home: A Review of Pines, by Blake Crouch

The United States of America is a large country, with settlements ranging in size from cities like New York and Los Angeles, to towns with only one or two permanent residents.  To the residents of these small towns, it is likely paradise.  To an outsider, there are few things more frightening than finding yourself trapped there.  Small town Americana has been a favorite setting of thrillers and horror films for decades, with good reason.  In these small towns, everyone knows their neighbors and their neighbors’ business.  Outsiders are immediately recognizable, and there is usually the sense that they will never fully integrate.  The remoteness nature of these small towns breeds a fear of lawlessness for the outsider, the worry that they could simply disappear from the lives of their friends and family, never to be heard from again.

Pines, the first novel in the Wayward Pines trilogy, written by Blake Crouch, takes place in a small town called Wayward Pines, nestled somewhere in the vastness of the Idaho wilderness.  One day, Special Agent Ethan Burke awakens in the local hospital of Wayward Pines, the victim of a car crash.  He is covered in bruises, has spots in his memory, and is immediately suspicious of the town.  He is there is find two Secret Service agents who went missing in the course of an unknown investigation.  Immediately, Crouch places us in Ethan’s head, the analytical mind of a trained Secret Service agent and former soldier.  The residents of Wayward Pines either do not acknowledge him or refuse to give any useful information.  Ethan’s belongings have gone missing and he cannot contact his superior back in Boise.  He knows something is very wrong.

One of the first people Ethan meets in Wayward Pines is Nurse Pam, who treats him at the hospital.  Initially, Ethan trusts her, and why would he not?  But it soon becomes clear there is a coldness under her warm exterior.  She consistently promises him that the doctor will be by the check on him, but hours pass by with no visit.  Then there is Sheriff Pope, a man of barely controlled violence and distrust.  Between Pam and Pope, Ethan is sent on a wild goose chase around the town searching for his badge, firearm, and other belongings.  These two represent the unseen power behind the town, and their every action makes Ethan question his sanity and his memory, culminating in a scene where Pope beats him senseless while roaring “Why are you?”  Crouch’s writing makes it very clear these two people are threats.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are Theresa and Beverly.  Theresa is Ethan’s wife, left behind in Boise with their son when Ethan disappears.  The scenes with her remind us that Ethan’s memories are real, that his life before arriving in Wayward Pines is real.  Even if it takes him longer to ground himself, the reader always knows to trust he is who he says he is.  Beverly, on the other hand, is a resident of the town, a resident who no one seems to know.  On their first meeting, she is kind to him in a way the other locals are not.  While Theresa grounds the reader, Beverly grounds Ethan and, while she is unable to reveal the truth of the town, she does reveal some of its secrets and helps keep Ethan alive.

The atmosphere of Wayward Pines is oppressive from the first page of the novel.  The residents act as if they have been programmed to embody a Norma Rockwell painting, a comparison Crouch, acknowledges.  Ethan’s first moments in the town consist of waking up next to a river with no recollection of how he arrived there, then passing out on someone’s front porch.  Crouch keeps putting Ethan in more and more uncomfortable situations for the first third of the novel, and we as the reader feel the unease and the uncertainty of what is happening.  We feel Ethan’s fear when he cannot reach his wife, and we understand his distrust when the Sheriff questions his identity, despite  confirming earlier that he had seen Ethan’s belongings and was aware of the investigation in the town.  Then Ethan finds a body hidden away to rot in one of the houses.  He suffers multiple injuries, is made to question his sanity and his reality, and is unable to change clothes or bathe for several days.  Everything about Wayward Pines conspired against him, to make him someone else, to annihilate everything that makes him Ethan Burke.  And then, the fête.

Violence is fleeting, though intense, in the first third of Pines.  It is always brutal but contained.  The novel changes completely when the fête begins.  It starts with the sound of five hundred rotary telephones ringing at the same time.  Neither Ethan nor the reader knows what is said on those phones.  The entire town is called into action with two clear purposes: hunt down anyone who threatens their way of live and murder them in the street.  This entire sequence is relentless.  Over the course of multiple chapters, Ethan is chased by most of the town.  Knowing that they mean to kill him, Ethan retaliates.  The violence is brutal and does not end with Ethan knocking someone out and running again.  Crouch’s writing makes it very clear that survival requires not holding back.  Yet, for the first time in the novel, the fête is where Ethan finally regains control of his life.  He fights back, he is washed by the rain, he finds clothes and weapons.  Halfway through the novel, he escapes the fête, the people hunting him, and the town of Wayward Pines.

The escape from Wayward Pines seems like it should happen close the finale of the novel.  During his time in the town, that is Ethan’s foremost goal.  Escape, get back to Boise, reunite with his family, and bring the full weight of the authorities down on the murderous town.  However, there is still half a novel left to go.  Outside of the town, things slow down.  Ethan takes time to relax a little when he realizes that the residents are not chasing him.  The writing even changes in subtle ways, doing away with the foreboding and the tension for a moment.  The book even allows itself to become beautiful while Ethan explores the woods and valleys and climbs a canyon wall just to see what is at the top.  The peace does not last, and this is where the novel’s biggest twist happens.  Wayward Pines may be a horrifying town, full of murder and insanity, but the outside is worse.  Humanoid monsters, later called aberrations, roam the wilderness, bodies designed for hunting and killing.  Ethan is attacked and almost killed by a group of these monsters before stumbling into the powerful cabal controlling the town.  Crouch was not content to write a standard, small town thriller.  Those have been done before.  By introduction the aberrations outside Wayward Pines, he transforms the story into something entirely different.

The ending of Pines is an intriguing set-up for the second novel in the series, Wayward.  Ethan learns the truth of the world and comes to side with the master of Wayward Pines.  The barbarism of the town is inhumane, but still nothing compared to what is happening outside the electric fence.  While this novel was relentless in its violence and tension, the finale sets up a slower pace for the next part.  In writing Pines, Blake Crouch has created a thriller unlike other thrillers by blending the genres to create something brand new.  While Ethan comes to recognize that, sometimes, sacrifices and compromises and necessary for the greater good, he will never forget his arrival in Wayward Pines and the fear of being an outsider in a small town.

Pines may be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 4 days

Next on the List: Wayward, by Blake Crouch

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