There’s something undeniably magnetic about a car crash, something that draws our attention time after time. Witness the cult J.G. Ballard novel Crash, the David Cronenberg film of the novel, or the Paul Haggis movie with the same name – hell, just look at the following NASCAR has. Nothing gets our blood flowing like metal screeching on metal.

Nick Arvin‘s novel The Reconstructionist may not have the warped sexual subtext of Ballard’s work, but there are still some pretty ugly collisions as his story unfolds, and not all of them between motor vehicles. Ellis Barstow is the reconstructionist of the title, an agent employed by legal firms to rebuild the specifics of car accidents from the debris. It’s a job he falls into when he runs into the ex-girlfriend of his dead half-brother – she gets him the position as her husband’s protege, but when romance starts to kindle between them the crashes aren’t the only hazards up ahead.

The love triangle at the core of The Reconstructionist is nothing new, but in this world of high speed collisions and tape measures Arvin has found an original and vibrant setting for his romantic tale. The key characters of Ellis and his mentor Boggs are well drawn, just quirky enough to hold our attention but intrinsically believable, and the narrative pulls us along in its wake. If Heather – the dead brother’s ex-girlfriend – sometimes appears one dimensional alongside them, it’s not necessarily a fault in her portrayal. She simply never matches Boggs’ and Ellis’s curious bond – and that is a cautionary tale in itself.

Arvin’s lean, sinewy prose is a good fit for his material, and The Reconstructionist keeps moving at such pace that it almost feels like a thriller rather than a work of literary fiction. Perhaps that explains why the ending falls a little flat, the narrative threads limping to a finish line that feels more like a question than an answer. It’s a conclusion that fits well with Arvin’s literary ambitions, but sits oddly with the romantic plot and the pseudo-thriller elements of the novel. If you’re hoping for a last-minute plot twist then you may want to look away.

Still, not every car can come in first, and The Reconstructionist still places well in a tough literary field. If nothing else, it marks Nick Arvin out as a writer to watch, and an impressive prose stylist. Just don’t expect the sparks to fly.

The Reconstructionist by Nick Arvin is released by Harper Perennial on March 13, 2012. It is available from all good bookstores, and online via the HarperCollins website, priced $14.99.

Home Culture Review: Nick Arvin Picks Up the Pieces in 'The Reconstructionist'