Cam Terwilliger on The Quickening, by Michelle Hoover. Other Press, 216 pp., $14.95.
Hasanthika Sirisena on Sunland, by Don Waters. University of Nevada Press, 200 pp., $25.95
Matthew Pitt on The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson, by Bryan Furuness. Black Lawrence Press, 309 pp., $18.00
Michelle Hoover's debut novel follows the story of two Iowa farm women as they endure the brutal first third of the twentieth century. The chapters alternate between the strong and stolid Enidina and her foil, the culture-craving, piano-loving Mary. Drawn into one another's orbits purely because their husbands have settled them on neighboring plots of land, a tenuous friendship develops between these very different women. As the novel progresses, Enidina's struggle to have children—and to keep them alive when she does—forms the fulcrum of her plot. Contrarily, Mary's chapters focus on her desire to live a life larger than the one her husband has provided—ultimately leading to a dangerous attraction to the local pastor, a cryptic figure always hovering at the edges of Hoover's novel.
Brimming with vivid imagery, The Quickening manages to convey the stark landscape of the region while—at the same time—finding a lyric beauty in it. Harsh seasons, earthy scents, taciturn farmers—all of this is rendered in such a way as to make you feel you've struggled through the Great Depression yourself. And though it recalls Alice Munro's Ontario and Ron Hansen's Nebraska, Hoover's Iowa has a crystalline vision all its own. Namely, Hoover has a special talent for the objective correlative. Page after page offers perfectly selected details, details that both bring the time to life and reveal the interior world of Hoover's cast. Take, for instance, the untamable horse that Enidina's son grows infatuated with. Or the piano Mary's husband buys her in an effort to win her love. Hoover has a way of imbuing these concrete details with a heart-breaking emotional valence. Yet, for all the inner strife she conjures, Hoover never once tips into melodrama. It seems this is just as her inward, life-worn Iowans would want it.
From Willa Cather to Cormac McCarthy to "Breaking Bad," the American Southwest has served as a testing ground for the American Dream. The borderland of our imaginations offers hope to those lucky enough to survive the terrain, but more often it doles out violence, despair, and death. Sunland, Don Water's engaging and original debut novel, takes on this perhaps hackneyed portrayal and gently tweaks it.
Sid Dulaney has recently returned to his childhood home in Tucson. He is broke, jobless, and smuggling prescription drugs across the border. Sunland is a true picaresque connecting escapades involving an old friend, a former babysitter who aids Sid in his drug smuggling, the residents of Sid's grandmother's retirement home, members of a Mexican gang and, at one point, a giraffe. Waters treats all this with a light, humorous touch. Sid, for example, isn't setting out to establish a drug empire. He wants only to provide drugs at affordable prices to his grandmother's friends. While there are hints of violence, Waters keeps all threats low-key, milking them for their comic possibilities.
The real star of Sunland is the Arizona landscape itself. Waters moves deftly from desert vistas, to images of wealth and luxury, to scenes of decay and corrosion:
Aluminum sheds next to aluminum homes sizzled under the sun. There were no trees in Warsaw's murdery neighborhood, which apparently didn't faze Warsaw's nearest neighbor, who was outside on her porch absorbing the heat, looking out over a fenced-in-yard, a twelve-by twelve square of electric green concrete. I saw an oxygen canister beside her. Tubes ran off it, which cinched around her hollowed out face.
The result is a smart, humane novel that takes on our notions of success and how success has become increasingly hard for many.
Is it possible to take pity on paragons of virtue? Literary Christ figures are so often imagined as hapless lambs to the slaughter, archetypal putty, or deranged gurus. All of which makes The Lost Episodes of Revie Bryson more captivating. The titular Christ child here believes only briefly he's the Second Coming, and only because his eccentric mother Rosalyn ordained him so. But Paris, Indiana is no Jerusalem, Revie was born from anything but an Immaculate Conception, and his first disciple performs acts far afield from the miraculous: sealing burps, for instance, inside makeshift time capsules.
Rosalyn soon jets away—not for the star of Bethlehem, but one on Hollywood and Vine—relegating Revie and his intermittently capable father to bachelor life. While Rosalyn has been hardly a superior mother, the place does fall to pot, fast, as Revie's golf pro father tutors extra clients for cash, leaving his son at an adjoining watering hole. The parents each rebel in their own way, living out dreams their arrested youth forced them to abandon. Before long, Revie has abandoned his Second Coming fantasies for second thoughts. Compounding his doubts is a substitute teacher—pleasingly reminiscent of Miss Ferenzi in Charles Baxter's "Gryphon"—who, by assuring that bliss is the ultimate source of discomfort, alters Revie's perceptions in ways he can't foresee.
The closest analog to public shaming polite American society engages in may come in the form of daytime talk shows. Crimes in these assembly-line episodes burst off the screen like Pop Rocks: Cheated on by ___! Betrayed with ___! Antagonists get booed and booted by audiences the instant they take the stage, and without a scrap of context.
Such "special topics" abound in Furuness's novel: separation, sexual angst, adults who go adrift. Yet to his credit, these topics aren't treated as set pieces. Characters drift into their poor decisions or unintended cruelties, and refuse to make scenes when they do. This jibes with the traditional, Midwestern chin-to-the-wind approach to scandal: a subtle shrug, a request for Diet Coke, and a continuance of life.
The novel also abounds with wit: both the delicate comedy of misplaced faith and expectations, as well as cheeky one-liners. ("Go forth," Revie tells his best friend after a miracle mishap, "and never say a word about this shit.") Furuness also details the healing power of humiliation, in a late scene where Revie spies, with pity and pride, his father confessing his vulnerability. "I wanted to shout bravo! bravissimo!—but that's the downside of eavesdropping: you can't applaud." As we eavesdrop in the messy world Furuness articulates here, though, we don't have to hold to the same constraint.