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Tampico by Toby Olson

Abby Margulies

A story of the elderly resisting surrender to death and finding an alternative way of living.


Publisher: University of Texas Press
Subtitle: A Novel
Author: Toby Olson
Price: $24.95
Length: 232
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 0292718276
US publication date: 2008-03

As old age descends memory becomes a precious commodity -- a testimony to life lived, experiences culled, people met, loved and forgotten. Slowly, stories replace activity, the vigor of the past suffices as a substitute for the impotency of the present, and history resurfaces as a palliative to boredom as living fades into stagnancy. Creeping into old age, the past, present and future mingle, and memory is all that is left for the aged man to comfort himself as he settles into his rocker and bides his time.

Toby Olson's Tampico takes on the struggle of the elderly as they waver between life and death, unsure as to whether they inhabit the land of the half living or already the half dead. Weaving together a litany of memories told by a raggedy group of nearly forgotten men as they waste away in the confines of the Manor, a dilapidated retirement home for aging war veterans, Tampico tells the story of resisting the surrender to death and finding an alternative way of living. Influenced by the narratives of their past lives, and motivated by a desire to confront death, rather than to wait for its approach, John, Gino, Larry, and Frank seek a future for themselves, and escape the Manor for a journey to the near-mythical town of Mexico's Tampico, the site of their collective fantasy and the place where they are confronted with the presence of their past.

Storytelling is a fascinating mode of entry into the lives of characters and allows for less to be said and more to be intonated, as the way the story is retold, the hyperbole that invariably accompanies the past and tinges the present with sadness, speaking volumes for the nature of the character, allowing for a subtle and yet complex study of individuals. However, Olson has forsaken the inherent beauty of recalled memory for a contrived plot told without the necessary nuance of voice, as the narrative passes between the characters.

As each chapter begins it is Olson's voice that drives the story forward. The first three chapters, belonging to John, Frank, and the young nurse Kelly, respectively, are nearly uniform in their narration. A story textured by the fabric of many people's stories relies on the lyrical voice of each individual character. Though Olson's writing is evocative and pleasingly dense, the believability of the fiction is lost in his inability to create distinct and memorable narrators, and the singular blandness of the voice is heightened by repetitive imagery.

Over the course of the book, Frank describes the pretty, blond nurse Carolyn saying "…the skirt of her dress appeared flat in the moonlight, like a dress on a paper doll…" followed by Gino noting, "Carolyn came into the room then like a paper doll," and finally Peter, a private detective from outside the manor who finds his way into numerous characters lives describes Carolyn, "…her starched uniform like a cutout dress for a paper doll…" Numbing in its repetition, and unconvincing in its lateral usage, the "paper doll" image serves less as a choice detail than as a dulling narrative blunder, and finds itself in the company of similarly repetitive imagery, including "squeaking shoes", "shushing tights" and unnecessarily frequent references to tracheotomy tubes.

Olson goes on to work against the innate appeal that the multi-layered mode of storytelling affords, extending beyond the exciting stories of days gone by with an utterly contrived plot that leaves all of the characters bizarrely connected by the story's end. Though Olsen begins with the colorful tale of John's Indian mistress who dyed her dogs in huge cauldrons and disappeared into the winding hills of Mexico with little explanation, he forsakes the believable near-myth, recalled by the wheelchair bound man, for a completely absurd stunt that leaves the reader disconnected from the subtle power of the story that he could have told.

Olson overshadows his natural talent for writing and his ability to flesh out a simple, yet thoughtful story with an overabundance of detail and an apparent need to create suspense and thrill, neither of which amounts to much of anything in the book. His characters, withering away in their various aging processes, are compelling, and Tampico in all of its dusty grandeur is enthralling. Olson would have served himself and the reader beter if he had given in to the charm of simplicity, and found a way to give his characters the narrative voice they deserve.


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