If you believe that children often nail the emotional truth even as they fog up the facts, then you'll agree that a child's life is a fitting vehicle for some of the finest fiction. It can be dizzying to reenter a world most of us have forgotten, with its certainties built atop misperceptions in a topsy-turvy house of cards. As adults we try to convince ourselves of those certainties and then we cling to them, hoping they'll give us a solid floor to stand on. Children seem to know instinctively there is no such floor and that each moment matters; they do not see the value of sacrificing the present to achieve a distant goal.
What does this mean to the novelist writing in a child's voice? Can the reader believe a child's observations? And how does the novelist relate the complexities that underpin and enrich stories while remaining true to the child's voice? Tim Winton takes on a difficult task in his short novel, That Eye, the Sky, just released here after being published in Australia in 1986. As young Ort Flack tries to understand what is happening to his disintegrating family, the adults surrounding him are just as lost.
Ort watches his father drive away one night to be nearly killed in a devastating auto accident. The man who can fix anything, who dropkicks a nasty rooster to show who's boss, returns virtually a vegetable. A stranger shows up, a man named Henry whom Ort has seen earlier crouching under a bridge, performing some kind of mumbo jumbo. The stranger says he was sent to help Ort's father. By the time we learn he believes God sent him as punishment for consorting with a Jezebel, it's plain that Ort and his family need all the help they can get, even Henry and his hellfire.
Add in a furious teenage sister, a mother psychically knocked nearly as senseless as her husband, and a best friend who abandons Ort, and you've got all the ingredients of melodrama. Yet the book is as spare as water-polished stones, with the writing as rich as the book is lean. Each sentence is telling and true: "Mum'll sting me for being so late, but her heart won't be in it. None of us can get our hearts in much, these days."
Winton uses the time-honored convention of young Ort eavesdropping on important adult conversations; even best pal Fat reports the details of his parents' loud argument. Ort's love and defense of his father tells much of the father's character, while the political posters on the wall alert the reader to the parents' own story, hardly referred to otherwise as it doesn't matter to Ort, and the parents' halcyon days have long given way to hardscrabble survival tactics. This is a book about heart and faith and the choices life makes for us -- and the Aussie slang gives it a wonderful flavor.
A very different book, but equally good, is Jean Harfenist's A Brief History of the Flood. Harfenist starts her tale with Lillian at age eight and continues to Lillian's early twenties, after she has made a physical but not mental escape from her family, whose house and lives are literally sinking. At first, the reader might suspect Harfenist was cheating: that this is not a novel, but eleven stories with the same characters. This means the author can leap from the emblematic tale at age twelve straight to the defining moment of fifteen without ever mentioning the dull days of thirteen and fourteen. (Teenagers, having forgotten and not again remembering the preciousness of each moment, might prefer life to imitate art in this regard.) But since the stories are terrific as stories and also work as a whole, why be picky?
Lillian's mother is Lolita and Mary Lou Retton rolled into one, and her denial of disaster is exhausting:
"'Your father's on the wagon,' she says. 'We've made up. ... It's a clean slate for both of us. ... He promised from now on he'll only drink beer. Your father is on the wagon.'
"'Are you kidding? Are you kidding?' Lillian muses. 'What, the beer wagon?' She believes anything anyone tells her, as if the last liar in America was hunted down and hanged the night before she was born.
"'You're no fun. ... You were my most serious baby.'"
Indeed. That Lillian still tries to bring about change in this family is proof of that; the older siblings really did escape.
Each story is itself a gem. "Salad Girls," in which Lillian and her fifteen-year-old classmates travel 62 miles each way for the graveyard shift at Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport, making salads to load onto planes, suggests why clever Lillian, five years later, is typing actuarial tables in the bullpen at an insurance company. The shoplifting story with best pal Irene is hilarious and terrifying. A few years later, we get this description of Irene: "She has a burning-up quality, an appetite so big I think of her with her mouth hinged open, arms moving like harvester blades, stuffing everything in life down into her throat -- everything except food. Irene can smoke a cigarette in two long pulls and finish a beer with one tilt of her head, but it's her body that's ruining her life. Her body is so great that only brazen guys have the guts to approach her -- the burglars and the drug dealers, the petty felons -- guys who grab what they want. Nice guys figure they aren't worthy of a body like that."
Writing like this pulls you to the conclusion, when Lillian has the courage to surrender. Harfenist is as good with Lillian's eight-year-old voice as she is with the voices of teenagers and those in their early twenties, and surprisingly, given the gaps, the progression does not seem choppy. Just as you can recognize the essence of an adult in his first-grade photo, Lillian's character grows incrementally, with nucleus intact and heartfelt.
But the same cannot be said for seventeen-year-old Haley Bombauer in William Kowalski's new novel The Adventures of Flash Jackson. This book is muddled so badly in so many ways that some readers will surely be amazed that it was even published. Start with the fact that Haley's seventeen-year-old voice is being told through Haley in her mid-twenties. The reader is reminded of this occasionally, as in "sometimes, back when I was seventeen..." Plowing through unconvincing scene after scene, you'll wonder what revelation after age eighteen could be so vital that the author would hamstring his story with this strangely distant narrator. Turns out there's no reason at all!
Haley has a grandmother who lives in the woods. Haley also has an attitude as big as Texas. That the Haley with the attitude would go live in the woods with Grandma is about as likely as hell freezing over. There are dropped threads, a mother whose character changes at the novelist's whim, gratuitous ursine mayhem, drug dealers, and enough silly and superficial "magic" to give the religious right an embarrassing whipping-horse. There are wonderful books on the theme of women going into the woods: try Mercy Road by Dalia Pagani or Jean Hegland's Into the Forest. Don't waste your time with this one.
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