Readers of Dutch writer Herman Koch’s The Dinner will find an excellent yet disturbing novel divided according to courses served at an upscale restaurant where two brothers and their wives are dining. But from apertif to digestif with the main course and dessert in between, this novel is anything but a story about food.
Rather, it is about two couples who have come together to discuss a horrible crime their teenage sons have committed and what to do — or not to do — about it. One brother, Serge Lohman, is a rising politician. The other, a former high school teacher named Paul, is the narrator who readers gradually realize is mentally unbalanced and certainly not a trustworthy relayer of information.
Paul Lohman cannot say his brother’s name without disdain in his voice. Neither can Paul describe the waiter’s description of the food on their plates without disdain for the waiter with the annoying “pinkie” finger. And Paul cannot talk of his son’s crime without criticizing the victim’s physical appearance. For that matter, Paul spends far less time talking about his son’s crime than complaining about Serge’s social status, about Serge’s opinions of the latest Woody Allen movie, even about what Paul speculates is Serge’s demeaning attitude toward his wife in the bedroom. For Paul Lohman, a grisly, unprovoked crime is almost a bothersome after-thought, a restaurant tip one might forget and have to return to pay.
The Dinner is not the kind of book readers will enjoy, though it is interesting, even a page-turner at times. It is not a feel-good story or one with a good ending or even one with any or many likable characters. There are zero laughs, not even a smile, and no places where a realistic reader would even hope things will work out in a way that most people would consider to be right, moral or just. Rather, the question becomes just how awful will the resolution be.
This book is for people who want to read about real people of all kinds, including those who aren’t always nice even though they dine in the best restaurants, sit on the front pews, teach our children, run for political offices, know what to say and when to say it, and may even be our relatives or friends.
Rather, it is a book about the intersection of life, death and doing the right, or wrong, thing under the most challenging of circumstances.