Lee, the math professor at the center of Susan Choi's absorbing novel A Person of Interest, is a man whose loneliness is mistaken for misanthropy. Twice divorced, awkward and short-tempered, 65-year-old Lee has isolated himself, as "his wasn't the kind of temperament spouse, or child, or friend had ever wanted to cleave to."
No one witnesses Lee during office hours, when he sits expectantly poised with pen and legal pad as footsteps approach and pass his office on their way to the hotshot professor next door, Rick Hendley.
Partly because of Hendley's popularity, Lee isn't fond of him. The extent of his dislike becomes clear in the moment Hendley opens a mail bomb. When the explosion's force throws Lee from his chair, he briefly thinks, "Oh, good."
Lee puts on a temporary show of grief, as when he speaks movingly to a reporter. But on campus, where students who never knew Hendley now feel connected to him, Lee finds his jealousy rising. Lee, too, is "almost overwhelmed by his feeling of loss," but this sensation is caused by changing offices, not the attack on a colleague.
After the bombing, the story moves in two directions. Choi travels backward with Lee, tracking every move in his past that pushed away his friends and family, allowing us to view him sympathetically. The second arc goes forward as the FBI investigates and publicly cites Lee as "a person of interest."
At times, the novel falters, leaving introspection behind to focus on the mystery of the bombing. Things move quickly and too neatly, giving a clean, cinematic end to what is otherwise an unfilmable book.
But in the public's reaction to Lee, we see the instant condemnation that dogged such persons of interest of recent history as Richard Jewell in the Atlanta Olympics bombing, Steven Hatfill in connection to anthrax mailings and Wen Ho Lee, falsely accused of espionage.
Choi takes us through the experience of the person under suspicion, where innocuous actions are misinterpreted and distorted out of context. These form the novel's most chilling moments, as Choi portrays a society so easily swayed, and taps into our own guilt.
Vikas Turakhia teaches high school English in Ohio.