Old, New, and the Gate Between the Two
Old Newgate Road, Keith Scribner
My list of “Connecticut Books” is a late edition to the CTMQ pantheon. It’s one of those lists that will never be completed in any meaningful way – both because I’m not immortal and because I’ll never know of all the books that could or should make it onto that list.
I hadn’t heard of Old Newgate Road, a 2019 novel written by Keith Scribner, until I was looking for something about “Granby books” in mid-2020. I clicked on the search result and whoa – a book written by an East Granby native, titled with an East Granby street name, that largely takes place in East Granby. I’m sure there are tons of books out there like this of which I am wholly unaware.
This is the kind of book that I would never have read if not for its Connecticutness. “Just another 300 page fictional story,” I’d say. There’s only so much time in the day, y’know? But once I started reading, I was immediately drawn to Cole Callahan, the main character.
Cole owns a construction business in the Pacific Northwest, but he returns to his childhood home in East Granby to buy old chestnut beams from the tobacco barns that are being torn down. Those of us who live near Tobacco Valley have watched as these symbols of the area have been disappearing every year.
Cole uses the beams in his high-end restoration projects out west. On his trip to his childhood Connecticut home, memories flood back from his youth – a mix of heady teenage sex and pot smoke as well as horrific domestic violence at the hands of his father. Driving around town (such as it is), Cole visits his childhood home and is confronted with his past. And not just metaphorically.
His father, suffering from dementia, is essentially squatting in the house… after years in prison for murdering Cole’s mother. Yeah, it’s rough. And while this situation sounds a little hokey, Scribner writes so well that it’s not. And for those of us familiar with the area, Scribner is very accurate, down to street names and gas stations. But I particularly like when he described the nearby ridges and trails:
The Metacomet Trail! This section! And you could totally push someone off of this cliff right above Newgate Road theoretically overlooking the Callahan homestead!
Scribner develops the characters in the novel very well. And he foreshadows events – future and past if that’s possible – cleverly. And perhaps most impressively, Scribner has created a millennial that is more a character than a caricature. This is Daniel, Cole’s social justice warrior Portland, Oregon son who is expelled from high school early in the novel.
He’s a brilliant kid who does really dumb things in the name of progressive justice. (We’ve all been there… am I right?) Nothing that a summer working the tobacco fields in Hartford County won’t fix though. I don’t think I’ve seen a white kid working the fields in my eleven years of working near/driving through them, but I wholly support the idea of hard, hot work to teach some life lessons.
Once Daniel and Cole are together, with the looming evil in Granddad Phil in the same town, the story really picks up. (There is a lot of woodworking and architectural filler in the book, but it’s not too bad.) I kept waiting for Daniel to become ridiculous, but that never happens… and it always happens when guys my age write characters our sons’ ages. Impressive.
Cole is the bridge between his passionate son and his violent, aging father. The past… the anger, the rage, the violence is always under the surface for Cole and yet he is quick to help clean up after dementia causes him to urinate in his pants or leave the shower running overnight. Capturing those opposing emotions is very difficult to do but Scribner does it very well.
Daniel learns about his father’s youth “in the sticks” (as he sees East Granby) and meets his grandfather for the first time. He is able to view the situation almost as an outsider, and actually drops knowledge on his own father who is sometimes blind to certain things. I should mention there’s a flashback to a family dinner at Magic Pan in West Hartford which cracked me up. Magic Pan!
The crepes at the restaurant become a reality when Phil teaches Daniel how to make them. Cole’s teenage love reappears as well, adding another layer of complexity to the situation. And no, they don’t just forget the past 30 years and have a steamy affair either… there are dark secrets and difficult experiences between them, and they don’t just disappear. Her brother Kirk and his son play vital roles in revealing the past, and confronting the present.
“Old” and “New” and the “Gate” bridging them. See what Scribner did there? Genius!
Old Newgate Road is raw, emotionally draining, and very well written. Reading about it here surely sounds like there are way too many coincidences and a-ha moments to make it believable. But I’m telling you, Scribner’s good. Everything in the story sounds natural and possible. This is certainly the best novel that takes place in East Granby, Connecticut ever written.
I kid, I kid – it’s one of the better contemporary novels that take place in all of Connecticut.