On This Day by Nathaniel Bellows

[26 February 2003]

By Leah Hochbaum

A Day in the Life

“The most I ever did for you was to outlive you. But that is much.”
— Edna St. Vincent Millay

At just 18 years of age, Warren is all alone. His father has died of cancer. His mother, of a toxic combination of grief and pills. His sister Joan, just two years his senior, is a borderline rage-aholic who spends all her time working, with her doltish boyfriend or railing against well-meaning relatives who are only trying to help. His father’s partner and purported best friend has swindled Warren and Joan out of a financial interest in a business that is rightfully theirs. And his only friend John has dropped him after Warren fooled around with his sister. Narrated by Warren and told at a gradual and unhurried pace that is at times monotonous and at other times ingenious, Nathaniel Bellows’ On this Day is a beautifully written but ultimately unsatisfying novel about the trappings of life and the artifice of friendship.

Working part-time stacking books in the local library in the small coastal town in Maine where he and his sister reside, Warren, orphaned and friendless, has a great deal of free time on his hands. He watches tons of television, obsessively cleans the house, which he believes has begun to smell odd since his parents’ deaths, and resumes taking piano lessons—not for his innate love of tickling the ivories, but for the promise of an appointment, a set time to be somewhere. He seems to spend a large chunk of the book waiting. Not for anything specific, but for something, anything, to free himself of the ennui of another day before him to mourn and be pitied. “The mail hasn’t come yet, which makes me annoyed, since it’s something I live for—an unhealthy anticipation.”

In his first novel, Bellows displays a rare gift for describing the minutiae of everyday life, spending a significant number of pages detailing Warren’s quest to fold a bed sheet without letting it touch the floor:

“I take one single flat queen-sized sheet in my arms, making sure that no part of it touches the floor. I root around in the masses until I have found the four corners. Then, I slowly open the sheet, gathering clumps in my fists to keep it from completely unfurling. . . . If the corners I have blindly attempted to pair in my hands are mismatched, this is the time, before the sheet is expanded any further, to discover this. Once those corrections are made, I stretch the sheet out as far as my arms will go to line up the sheet’s outside edges. By this point the sheet is almost folded in half.”

And then there’s Warren washing the curtains, which when neglected, begin to brown:

“I took [the curtains] down to remove the brown streaks that had mysteriously appeared along their lace edges. I laid the curtains one on top of the other in the bathtub. I filled the tub and poured the bleach in. . . . I was afraid the fumes would knock me out, and I didn’t want Joan to find me facedown in the bathtub filled with bleach and the curtains our mother made from the lace she’d bought when she and my father went to Sweden years ago.”

The author falters, however, in his all-too obvious attempt to convey the idea that people with too much time on their hands and no one to spend it with lead wasted lives. Warren might be bored—he might even be boring—but that doesn’t mean he has nothing to live for. The restlessness he experiences after the double whammy deaths of both of his parents is a serpentine path to emotional maturity. We all walk the path someday—barefoot and frightened, misty-eyed and bewildered—however, he walks it early, too early to truly understand why.

But while Warren spends much of this novel alone in unwanted solitary confinement, in actuality, he isn’t completely alone. Having experienced their compounded losses together, Warren and his sister, despite her rage issues, have developed an uncommonly close bond which oftentimes seems to border on the incestuous. They hold hands and share the same bed in times of crisis. They cry in each other’s arms. Joan began begging to share her brother’s bed the night their father passed. At first hesitant, fearing that his mother would walk in and misinterpret their innocent grief for illicit doings, Warren quickly warmed to the warm body at his side. “I liked that she would come in every night and we would lie in bed and talk . . . More than once I woke up with her arms around my ribs, her head resting gently against my back.” They act less like siblings than a couple on the edge of divorce. Warren is almost openly jealous when Joan opts for a night out on the town with her boyfriend over an intimate evening home alone with her brother. Joan becomes livid at Warren’s clinginess, yet returns home nightly to reclaim her spot next to him in bed.

The story that unfolds in this book is by no means unique. Each day, fathers die and mothers die and their children are left to fend for themselves in a world that is often cold. Bellows is a talented young writer whose elegant way with a sentence has resulted in a tale of supreme beauty and pain for this troubled young protagonist. But that doesn’t disguise the fact that nothing really happens in this book. Things have either already happened or will happen soon. The protagonist’s days bleed one into another without distinction. This Day could be any day.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/on-this-day/