The Third Hill North of Town, by Noah Bly, sucks you in very quickly with its dark humor and laugh-out-loud moments, even in the midst of tragedy. Julianna Dapper is a middle-aged woman in Bangor, Maine, with a lovely home, a good job, and a good life. One day, her mind snaps, she thinks she is fifteen again, and she sets fire to her neighbor’s garage for no apparent reason. Placed in the state mental hospital, she palms her medication and feeds it to an African violet at the nurses’ station. Left unsupervised for a moment one Saturday morning in June, she waltzes right out of the hospital, into the director’s car (keys conveniently left in the ignition), and she’s off, heading home to Pawnee, Missouri.
She manages to kidnap (almost accidentally) an African-American teenager, Elijah, in the next town over, and picks up another, hitchhiking teenager a while after that. The boys quickly realize that all is not right with her, and tragedy piles upon tragedy as they careen their way across the country.
But these tragedies are minor compared to the huge tragedy that lies at the center of Julianna’s life, a night of blood and fire that has all the answers. And in a tense scene back at the scene of the tragedy that started it all in Pawnee, as all the people hunting these accidental fugitives converge on them (among them Elijah’s parents, the director of the Maine state mental hospital, Julianna’s son, and police from two states), we find out about the terrible night that began it all.
This is Noah Bly’s debut novel, and it is amazing. If this is how he writes a first novel, I can’t wait until he’s been writing for a few more years.
Five out of five stars. Intense.