[27 November 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
You can tell a lot about what Andrew Porter’s first novel In Between Days is all about just by looking at the details in the Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data near the front of the book. The data says that this is a novel about “Dysfunctional families – Fiction”. It also says this is a book about “Divorced Parents – Fiction”. And, finally, wait for it, this is a tome about “Adult children of dysfunctional families – Fiction”. So, yes, this is a novel about dysfunction, and a family in crisis.
However, there are things that may also alter your perception of the book just by reading the critic’s blurbs on the back cover about the author’s debut collection of short stories called The Theory of Light and Matter. To wit, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution says that “[Andrew Porter is] in direct dialogue with the work of John Cheever and Raymond Carver.” Then, The Christian Science Monitor says the following: “Of all the things to love about Andrew Porter’s wonderful collection, my favourite is how tenderly his characters treat one another’s failings and vulnerabilities. ... Their sensitivity is just as stirring and their subtle moments of epiphany just as poignant [as] Raymond Carver’s characters.” The Daily Beast notes: “Porter crafts stories of disparate lives in an evocative, straightforward prose style reminiscent of Raymond Carver.” And, finally, the Cleveland Plain Dealer tells us that the short-story collection was: “A work of unadorned beauty [that] draws immediate comparison to the stories of Raymond Carver.”
Noticing a bit of a trend here? Yes, Porter seems to get frequently compared to the great American short story writer Raymond Carver, the brilliant chronicler of the blue-collar experience. Now, Carver is one of those writers that I personally haven’t read, and have been meaning to eventually getting around to reading, but my perfunctory understanding of the man’s work is that many of his stories featured down on their luck characters in downtrodden situations. This is fine and dandy, but my suspicion is that Carver was as successful as a writer as he was simply because he never stretched beyond the short story format. I’m not sure of the reasons, but I would suspect that there’s only so much Dirty Realism a person can take, and that kind of writing is best left to be consumed in one sitting. Now, I might be wrong in that presumption or theory, as Charles Bukowski wrote novels, after all, but after reading In Between Days I get the feeling that this might have worked better as a short story as the sheer depressiveness of the tale is, at times, a little hard to take in one 300-plus page chunk.
Which is odd, as In Between Days is actually fairly well crafted chronicle of the lives of the characters that populate it. It centres around a family in Houston, Texas, called the Hardings. Father Elson is a failing architect who drinks and smokes way too much, while his stay-at-home wife Cadence is a woman with many neuroses, having to put in time with a therapist on an ongoing basis. Their marriage has just gone off the cliff, though we never get a sense of what actually happened in their relationship to make it take a swan dive, despite the fact that Porter hints at a deep and profound unhappiness in their professional (in Elson’s case) and private lives.
The couple has two children who are college-aged: Richard, who is openly gay and can’t decide whether or not he wants to pursue a career as a poet despite the admiration of a lecherous, possibly bisexual English professor who wants him to go to writing school in Michigan, and Chloe, a college student in New England who is in a pile of legal trouble with the police for being an accomplice to a “prank” (if you can call it that) gone wrong on a racist committed by her Asian boyfriend Raja. Essentially, the book is told from the perspective of each of these main characters in successive chapters, tracing the family’s trajectory of a complete freefall into the abyss.
What I will grant Porter is that he has a commanding ear for dialogue – especially when his characters are essentially passively arguing with one another (which is quite frequently) – and paints his portrait of a family gone wrong in harrowing detail. In Between Days is not an easy book to read – and I would imagine it must have been a tough book to write – because we are essentially draw into a world populated by characters who have few, if any, redeeming qualities. Porter also mines a deep seam of fear: these are protagonists who are often in a state of paralysis, unable to act or, at least when they do, are unable to make the right choices, largely due to the fact that they feel the inescapable tug of failure at every turn: the failure of being a good husband or wife, the failure of being a doting mistress (or lover to another woman outside of the crumbled marriage), the failure of one to follow through on their ambitions, the failure associated with being in deep trouble with the law, and on it goes.
The thing about In Between Days is this: I would not call the book entertainment. If you’re the type of reader who is looking to escape from the mundane nature or stresses of everyday, ordinary life, In Between Days is a book that will probably make your blood boil. Essentially, this is a novel where, if the characters were actual flesh-and-blood, real-life people, you’d want to pull a Cher in Moonstruck on them and slap them in the face and say, “Snap out of it!” These characters are so flawed and genuinely helpless that you get to a point in the novel where you almost stop caring about what happens to them.
But there are other fundamental flaws with the book that appear to be editing errors, or places where the author didn’t go back over his work and read it to ensure that logic prevails. For example, we’re told in the book cover’s dust jacket blurb that Richard lives at home with his mom, which appears to be true at some points in the novel – the character comes home to go read comic books in his bedroom – but then there are other times where the character, unless I really missed something, appears to have his own apartment. Towards the end of the book, a character makes a phone call to one of the family members from a pay phone, but later, it appears that the character was really making a call from a cell phone. And while I can appreciate that the author was trying to have the reader second-guessing a little bit, we learn early that Raja attacked the racist character in a bar, only to learn that the real issue that got him in hot water was that he may or may not have again attacked said racist in his own dorm room at college as a “prank” with a cricket bat a little later on in time.
Another thing that is a bit disappointing is that, even though In Between Days is set in Houston, which is an exotic world to outsiders and one that is rarely visited in fiction, you really don’t get a sense of the city’s character at all. In fact, and perhaps this was the point of the author, the book could have been set in Anytown, USA, which is a bit underwhelming as you could have walked away with a sense of the location and how it may or may not have impacted the character’s lives and decisions. Alas, this is not the case, the city is not a character, leaving the reader holding, if you will, an empty bag.
All in all, In Between Days is a frustrating read because there are individual scenes and vignettes that are so wonderfully realized, but their impact would have been greater had they been committed as individual short stories that would get us in and out of the narrative with as little pain and wincing as possible. Reading In Between Days is a little like someone slowly hammering a nail into your palm: it’s at times so brutally honest and painful that you really have to wonder what the whole point of the novel is all about other than to wallow in misery.
I realize that life is not all wine and roses, but certainly, there has to be at least some moments in a fairly normal, non-abusive city household – Porter makes the point that the parents never hitting their children or raise their voices to them – that you have to wonder if there wasn’t some sort of levity, good moments, that coursed through the lives of these characters. We do get the odd scene or memory that hints at the Hardings as being functional, but for all of their lack of ability to operate together throughout the majority of the narrative, we never really get a true sense of the hows and whys a family could be this indifferent or subtly terrible to one another. We know that Elson and Candace don’t get along, but I’d be hard pressed to find a scene in the book where they have an all-out fight other than when they trade icy, passive-aggressive barbs with one another.
In Between Days is basically, then, a book about the fallout of a doomed family, but the thing is that’s not nearly as interesting as the actual cause of dysfunction. In the end, In Between Days is a turbulent journey into the aftermath of things gone wrong, a dissolution of the myth of the modern American nuclear family.