Sprawling, Epic and Fractured
This is a big, sprawling, intelligent, challenging and openhearted book. Robert Boswell has been kicking around the idea for this book for some years now. My introduction to his work was with his debut collection of short stories, Dancing in the Movies, which I picked up as a fresh college grad somewhere around 1986. His stories were immediately compelling back then, focusing as they did on the marginalized and underclass (the story “Dancing in the Movies” is about heroin users), and in the decades since, his writing has only gotten stronger. Looking for a wide-angle epic that focuses in intimate detail on a wide cast of crisply drawn, uniquely individual characters? Here you go.
The novel’s ostensible protagonist is James Candler, who works as a counselor at Onyx Rehab, a high-end program/shelter for young adults with a variety of mental disorders—everything from schizophrenia to depression to what looks like severe autism. The patients aren’t violent, and their symptoms range from fairly mild to profoundly odd. Candler acts as a counselor and is also in charge of the sheltered program where many of the novel’s characters work: Karly, who is beautiful but mentally simple; schizophrenic Mick, who “liked imagining the day that he would need [no medication] and would return to the world as it had been before. The simplicity of it, the basic clarity of existence, would once more belong to him”; mood-disordered Maura, who is not-so-secretly in love with Mick; and numerous others, including the possibly-violent Vex and compulsive masturbator Alonso.
All these characters fall into the web of Boswell’s intricate plotting, as do several others: Candler’s sister Violet and finacee Lolly, his best friend Billy Atlas, and his brother Pook, who figures strongly in the recollections of both Candler and Billy. Candler is also gunning for the directorship of the center where he works, so a number of colleagues, supervisors and hangers-on are also in the mix. And oh yes, there’s also Lise, who was briefly a patient of Candler’s years back, who developed an infatuation with him and who now is contriving an elaborate plan to bring herself back into his orbit.
So, yeah: there’s a lot going on.
What’s great about this book, though—one of the things that’s great—is the way the author manages to hold these threads together. The storyline never feels lost or meandering, even though many of the characters are lost, to one degree or another—there are enough connections among them that the reader senses the fabric that binds them all together. This is not an easy thing to do.
Another difficult thing is to present mental disturbance with any sort of accuracy, and again, the author excels at this. I have worked with adolescents and adults much like the characters in this book for many years; I have known young men like Mick and women like Maura, and will vouch for their portrayal here. Boswell neither makes them genius-saints whose skewed worldview indicates some profound understanding that the rest of us lack, nor are they pitiable outcasts deserving of cheap sympathy. They are just characters whose brains don’t function quite the way they would like.
Boswell’s authorial voice hews closely to the consciousness of these characters, as one would expect, avoiding first-person expression but only just: “He adjusted his watch to match satellite time, removed his helmet, checked that he had his keys in his pocket, looked at the window over the garage where his friend Alonso Duran lived, (window lit, curtains open), fingered the zipper to his fly (completely shut, lever down), and ran a finger over his teeth (clean). Still 6:39. Nothing he could do about it, he was going to be early.” Meanwhile, Maura’s judgmental side shows up early: “The unpredictable one was the little fucknut Bellamy Rhine, a finicky, twitchy simpleton who stood too close to people and was exactly as tall as Maura’s breasts. If she ever needed to, she could smother the little prick without even bending over.”
One element in the storytelling that calls attention to itself is the author’s occasional nods toward postmodern narration, including moments and passages that acknowledge the artifice of the story. Early, the narrator addresses the reader directly, taking him/her into confidence: “But for everyone there comes a day… when even the voice of god carries a dubious tremor. Such days are worthy of our attention.” These moments are relatively uncommon, but they do crop up from time to time, and they feel out of place in such an otherwise organic, all-encompassing narrative. The most glaring example of this comes near the end, when a character is at risk of dying, and the narrative splits, with a strand following the character’s death is intertwined for several pages with a strand in which the character recovers. This sounds more complicated than it is—it’s cleverly crafted and easy to follow, but it raises the question: why bother?
Presumably there is some thematic idea here, perhaps having to do with the uncertain nature of reality as understood by these fractured characters (or their fractured readers, ha ha). But the payoff for such an authorial intrusion seems very small in exchange for the wrenching out of the story that the reader experiences. Regardless, though, the novel is a powerful one that succeeds on many levels: in terms of good storytelling, engaging characters, though-provoking themes, and lively sentences. Robert Boswell is a writer who knows what he is doing, and he’s written a good one, here.