[14 March 2011]
The names given by authors to their characters are similar to those given in life, but with the added advantage of foreknowledge. Once a fictional character becomes known or revealed to an author, the name may be tailor-made to convey thematic purpose, more akin to how nicknames function in real life, where a word, or even a sound, can denote or stress a particular character trait, physical attribute or behavior. Oftentimes these nicknames say close to everything about a person. For example, I have a friend called Worm.
So with a title character named Wrecker, whose name is not a nickname, I was expecting something with a bit more bite. But the novel Wrecker ends up feeling more like its other softer named characters—Melody, Willow, Ruthie and a self-proclaimed Johnny Appleseed. These names may sound a little cartoony, but the novel begins in the late-‘60s, and the author’s name is Summer Wood.
Wrecker is a foster child, orphaned when his mother, Lisa Fay, gets taken down in a drug deal gone very wrong. Fay is sentenced to 15 years, Wrecker to the foster system, before being claimed by his Uncle Len, who brings him to a remote area of northern California. Len quickly—perhaps too quickly—realizes that he is an unfit father, as he is already overburdened with the care of his incapacitated wife Meg, the victim of a tragic oral surgery infection. So Len takes Wrecker a few miles away to Bow Farm.
Bow Farm is less a commune than a literal retreat. Its inhabitants—Melody, Willow, Ruthie, and the itinerant Johnny Appleseed—set up home here after retreating from various unsatisfying or traumatic situations in their pasts. Melody was willingly paid off by her wealthy father to walk away from her disappointed family, while Ruthie, now a kind of Jolly Earth Mother, literally washed ashore after a suicide attempt following an unhappy love affair. Willow, it is hinted, was a middle-class housewife and mother who left her family for reasons that are only revealed late in the novel. And then there’s Johnny Appleseed, a fairly typical ‘60s Mountain Man, whom Melody sees as “mostly human […] as far on the spectrum as a person could get and still belong to the same species”, the kind of guy who calls an old maple tree “vulnerable”—a pretty obnoxious character even in real life, but especially with romanticized overtones. I’ve worked in the Haight/Ashbury district in San Francisco, Hippie Central USA in the ‘60s. Many of yesterday’s Mountain Men are today’s homeless.
At times, this group seems like a super-benign, comparatively nuclear Manson clan, minus the lunatic leader, but with similar escapist/isolationist tendencies. Wood sentimentalizes this attitude a bit, playing up the characters’ eccentricities and only once in awhile showing the flipside—the wreckage left behind by such supposedly freeing life choices. “But Bow Farm was good that way. In a pinch there was always someone to count on for help. […] The bottom line was simple: do what you want and no one will stop you. The alpha and omega. Freedom.” Luckily for these hippies, Wrecker comes into their lives. Now they’re hippies with a purpose—in other words, they’re no longer hippies.
Ostensibly the novel is meant to track how Wrecker effects these various people, but this effect or at least the telling of the effect is pretty, well, ineffectual. In trying to summarize the action of the novel, I realize how little there is. The novel jumps through Wrecker’s life and we are told how difficult he is to handle, how Melody takes on the role of mother despite Willow’s misgivings, how Ruthie takes to him like a playful aunt and how Johnny Appleseed must leave the farm to join the “guardians” of the forest. There is a side plot involving Len and Meg which, though catastrophic, is too intermittent to really move in terms of motion and emotion. Also, we are shown Wrecker’s biological mother, Lisa Fay, residing in what may be one of the least threatening portrayals of prison ever.
Despite the novel’s time-span during some pretty tumultuous years in America, the characters and the novel itself remain remote from history. Wood shies away from any serious social commentary, which is fine, but too often the novel seems as isolated from late twentieth century trauma as Bow Farm itself. Not that the characters need to be plugged in, Forrest Gump-style, to every major cultural event, but it might’ve added something to know their attitudes toward at least some of the national or world events over a 20-year span.
Although the novel only begins in the late-‘60s, before following Wrecker’s maturation onward into the ‘80s, it never quite loses its Summer of Love aura. The characters seem much the same in the beginning as they do in the end. Too often I found myself imagining other narrative possibilities for them, because on the page no one seems to go through much really. They have gone through much, and that’s part of the problem. In a sense, they’ve all already experienced the defining crisis of their lives (Willow and Melody choosing to leave their families, Ruthie attempting suicide) with the result that their back-stories, arising whenever a character has some alone time, are riper with dramatic potential than the present of the novel.
For example, throughout there are ominous overtones about Willow’s background, how she was once a mother, or still a mother and had either lost a child, or walked away from her children for some mysterious reason. We only learn the full story near the novel’s end and it’s a letdown. There was an accident, Willow writes in a letter to Wrecker: “The car hit a patch of ice and spun out of my control and went over an embankment. And the kids were fine. Miraculously, the kids were fine. Except Teddy, who was 12, and it was just that a piece of shattered glass from a Coke bottle he’d held in his hands found its way to his face. It lodged itself in the fold beneath his eye […] my son lost his vision in that eye.” Though admittedly very sad, this is comparatively less shocking than the possible child’s death that we’ve already imagined. So Willow seems much less the capable, though distant, woman portrayed throughout the novel and ultimately more of a cop-out: this woman walked away from her children over the shame of partially blinding one of them in an accident? Despite her attempt to rectify her past, Willow and author Wood let her off too easily on this.
Just as this backstory might have yielded more dramatic weight, likewise Melody’s troubled familial past. In one overly-familiar scene Wood attempts to define Melody’s conflicted relationship with her father:
“Her father was a man who knew a good deal when he saw one. He looked up over his reading glasses at this young woman [Melody] standing in front of his desk. He adopted a look of deep concentration. Melody was not fooled. If she had said one hundred thousand dollars he would have had exactly the same look on his face. And then he would have written the check. He wrote the check. He handed it to her and when she reached to take it he continued to hold on. Their skin didn’t touch, but they were connected through the medium of that piece of paper.”
Despite the somewhat clichéd aspect of this exchange, the latent antagonism, the simple conflict it represents is more interesting than Melody’s need to avoid it.
Wood also introduces the peripheral character of Melody’s divorce-prone brother. His third wedding, and Melody’s reunion with her estranged parents with Wrecker in tow, is just one more by-passed event in what ends up being a list of them: Wrecker’s high school dance, not to mention his daily high school life, Willow’s multiple prison visits to Lisa Fay. Much of the action occurs away from Bow Farm and we don’t see enough of it.
Also, though I don’t know what the foster system was like in the ‘60s, I’m sure it carried more potential for dramatic conflict (or is this comic relief?) than a scene like this:
“Miss Hanson,” he repeated for the eleventh time. “I’m holding for Miss Hanson.”
“Please deposit forty cents for the next three minutes,” the operator whined. Len searched his pockets. He had thirty-five cents. He dropped it into the coin slots.
“This is Miss Hanson.”
“—five cents more for the next three minutes.”
“Miss Hanson!” But Len had no more change, and the operator terminated his call.
“I’m sorry,” the receptionist said when Len finally reached her again. “Miss Hanson has left for lunch.”
Wood is certainly not a bad writer, just maybe too often a soft one, with some uninspired structures or rhythms. In one paragraph she describes, “Slight, sophisticated, Willow leaned against a porch post…”, then a few sentences later in the same paragraph describes another character, “Hearty, helpful, the woman resembled a country monk…” Or this passage of psychology-lite: “Len’s brow furrowed. Why? This was a kid, a child with no other relatives to look after him. Wouldn’t Meg have said yes? You couldn’t leave a child alone in the world. But now Len was saying no. Was this right? How could this be? He looked aside, morose. Accused, somehow. And plainly guilt.”
Wood does have a fine descriptive sense, however. The liveliest and most interesting chapter, for me, is also the most environmentally destructive: Len, a logger, fells an old tree, and finally it feels like something is happening. This chapter contains some of Wood’s finest writing:
“It was a giant tree, the trunk misshapen by fire and encrusted with lichens, and it dominated the slope with its girth and the broad circle of shade cast by its canopy […] Noises flattened beneath it.”
Once Wood has the task of describing a utilitarian function, the prose comes alive:
“Len eased its whirring blade into the thick bark of the tree. The motor pitch dipped and a stream of pale dust spewed from the cut. He lifted the blade back out, repositioned it over the first cut, and angled down until the two kerfs met. Then he removed the blade and stilled the saw.”
But even here, I feel Wood by-passes possibly transcendent material. Wrecker has a vocational epiphany watching the tree come down the mountain, and Wood handles his sense of awe nicely:
“Wrecker stumbled back when the tree began to fall. He planted his feet to steady himself and after some gaping seconds the shock waves galloped across the ground to climb his legs and rearrange his chest. He absorbed the blow into every cell of his body, felt it change the chemistry of his brain, shake into shape some amorphous category of soul. And after the noise abated still he stood and let the slow seep of warmth—the afterglow of destruction—feed his muscles and flush his face.”
I wanted more of this throughout the novel, this elevated sense of emotion and deeper insight into a character, especially Wrecker. And that, finally, is the novel’s biggest fault: it strays too far from its title character. Some of Wood’s strongest writing is about Wrecker, with some deceptively simple sentences that say a lot:
“The kid came with a trash bag half full of who knows what.”
“He seemed to need to feel his body collide with the physical world to know he existed.”
I wanted more of Wrecker, especially the older he gets. I understand that the wreckage he causes is to the preconceptions of this half-settled group, but I wanted him to be more destructive, to truly wreck things. Too often he seems the least-drawn of the characters, a slightly confused sandy-haired kid who likes motorbikes and is not so much a wrecker as simply reckless, and even that in a pretty typical way.
The press release states how the author wished to imagine a safe place for abandoned children. Unfortunately this novel is a little too safe.