In one brief scene in Douglas Bauer’s majestic debut, Dexterity, a secondary character recalls her mother losing track of a sharp knife in sudsy dishwater. She cuts her finger on it, the suds become pink, and she eventually suffers permanent nerve damage, even after her husband tells her such cuts are never as severe as they first seem. This is a perfect symbol of the poor chances waiting in life for Dexterity’s characters: they treat each other with a toxic combination of self-centeredness, verbal bullying, and violence.
In an Upstate New York village not far from the Hudson River, Ed King’s young wife Ramona turns her back on her abusive husband and the infant son she has not learned to love, and walks off – literally. She heads down the highway on foot, in her flip flops. The village focuses on Ed’s troubles, and this focus is exceedingly uncomfortable for him. For Ed is his generation’s main bully, and knows the town and its culture of gossip and scandal better than anyone. When he enters the crosshairs of the town’s attention it makes him paranoid, delusional, and ever more violent.
Dexterity exhibits the mental states and thought processes of its main antagonists Ed and Ramona – that is its main calling and raison d’être. Mr. Bauer convinces us of these internal processes so completely – his triumph here is utter and complete. We can only wonder at such assurance in a debut work of fiction.
This was a bit of a slog for me. The relationships between the townspeople rest on old habits of invective and falsehood; the relationships between individuals and their own memories and consciences rest on much the same. The caring or giving individual is rare – Ramona meets a few after she gets out of town – and there is a tension in the possibility of Ed going in search and finding Ramona. Overall, however, this is a very commendable entry. It sets forth a magisterial justice for us to reflect on, and engages us with its exact and dispassionate eye for the town’s endemic emotional stuntedness.