It isn’t easy to turn a domestic tragedy into a high velocity page-turner, but Gross uses the suicide of a disturbed young man as the starting point for a book that is both more moving and more exciting than anything he has written to date (and that’s saying something, in his case).
The author has already demonstrated the ability to use a real crime as the trigger for fiction that never feels like exploitation — “Reckless” jumped off from a situation similar to the notorious Cheshire home invasion/homicide but without any of the tacky obviousness of “Law & Order.”
“Eyes Wide Open” began in a double danger zone for a writer — Gross went through the tragedy of losing a nephew to suicide two years ago and he also had a close encounter with Charles Manson as a child — but he has taken those two elements and refashioned them into a harrowing story that works its own terrible magic on a reader.
Gross’ protagonist Jay Erlich is a very successful Westchester surgeon — happily married and the father of two children — who has spent years bailing out his older brother Charlie who became a victim of the 1960s and ’70s.
An aspiring singer-songwriter whose career never took off, Charlie married a fellow ex-flower child and they raised a son Evan who inherited their substance abuse problems — and emotional illness — and who has been in and out of various psychiatric facilities and treatment centers when the book begins.
Charlie and his family have been on public assistance for years and dependent on the kindness of Jay for keeping a roof over their heads and to avoid being completely swallowed up by mounting debts.
When Jay gets the call telling him that Evan has been found dead at the bottom of a cliff on the California coast — and pretty obviously jumped to his death — the younger brother flies west to comfort his brother and his wife.
This is the sort of family mess that can’t be handled with a hug and a discreet check, however, especially when Jay starts to suspect that his nephew might have been murdered.
Gross begins the book with a horrifying prologue in which a happy middle-aged woman is inexplicably murdered, so we know there will be more than family drama in “Eyes Wide Open.” But it takes about 100 pages to begin to see how the crime at the very start of the book might tie in with Evan’s death and Charlie’s brief relationship with a Manson-style hippie psychopath 40 years ago.
It is to the author’s credit — and an illustration of his great gifts as a writer and storyteller — that the strictly personal drama of Jay and Charlie grips and moves us before the thriller elements kick into high gear.