Sean Stewart's reputation as one of today's best practitioners of magical realist fiction — what in some circles is starting to be termed "urban fantasy" — receives another hearty boost with Perfect Circle, an elegiac rumination on the curious relationship between love and death that reads like exactly the kind of book Stephen King would dearly love to write before that retirement he swears is coming. This is heartbreakingly gutsy storytelling, which, like the best magical realism, filters life's triumphs and tragedies through the sieve of fantasy to allow us a clearer perspective on our own reality.
William Kennedy is a 32-year-old failure, jobless, no prospects, still carrying a torch for his ex, with an adolescent daughter whose love for him is motivated more by pity than respect. His one talent, if you can call it that, is that he sees dead people. Beyond that, any resemblance to The Sixth Sense comes to an end. The dead are singularly pitiful, haunting the places where they've lived, and William tries most of the time to ignore them, the way one ignores the homeless. (It's a hallmark of magical realism that fantasy elements are treated, not with X-Files-ish awe, but as perfectly mundane aspects of everyday life.)
Will, who comes from an enormous extended family, is contacted by a cousin named Hanlon he barely knows, who complains bitterly about the ghost of a girl living in his garage. Possibly imagining Will to be some sort of exorcist or ghostbuster, Hanlon persuades the desperately broke Will to come over and do what he can for a cool thousand bucks. But when Will sees the dead girl, it's obvious Hanlon's story about her death being accidental is a load; Hanlon is a murderer of the most sickeningly sadistic stripe.
Will manages to extricate himself from the situation, but at nearly the cost of his own life. Recovering, he learns — thanks to the craftiness of another relative, a journalist — that he's become something of an of-the-moment celebrity. A profile published in the newspaper leads to a flurry of letters and calls from several people believing themselves haunted, and offering plenty of money to Will if he can do something about it. But the unpleasant truth about ghosts is that they always want something, and if they haunt you, they haunt you for a reason.
Past its supernaturalist trappings, Perfect Circle is as much a novel about life as of death. True, the reminders of death that permeate our lives are everywhere in the book, both the kind we notice (the enormous collection of guns that Will's ex's new husband prides) and the kind we don't (little memorials to car crash victims nestled forlornly on traffic islands). Even Will's nickname — "DK" for Dead Kennedy, an obvious allusion to the punk band but an even more overt reference to the book's central thematic obsessions — reflects it. But above all, Perfect Circle is about the bonds we make and break all through our lives, the responsibilities we have to the ones we love, and how hard it can be to forgive ourselves for all the times we fall short of their expectations and ours. The thing is, we never get a second chance. Stewart's carpe diem message may seem old hat, but his framing of it isn't. There's one scene in the book which, above all others, underscores the sadness of a life gone wrong and illustrates Stewart's literary virtuosity. In a rare carefree moment, Will enjoys a day with his daughter at an amusement park, and she persuades him to join her in writing down a wish and tying it to a helium balloon. It's the sort of naive and sweet act only someone on the cusp of childhood would think of, but one that still no parent should be able to resist from their own child. But Will cannot think of anything to wish for, and so he just pretends to write something down and watches the two balloons float away.
There are many other tiny details in the narrative that communicate deep emotional truths in the most economic of ways; at one point Stewart evokes the bleakness of one suburban neighborhood by describing it as the kind of place where all the children have grown up and moved away. But it isn't all Ingmar Bergman either. There's plenty of wit, placed skillfully throughout the story so it never turns into anything as banal as comic relief. And all throughout the story, Stewart has been bringing the narrative full circle, until this fictional study of mortality and loss has turned into one of the more life-affirming novels you're likely to read. A quiet triumph, sure to linger in your heart and mind for a good long time, from a writer it's high time you noticed.