"The Dissemblers" by Liza Campbell

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In “The Dissemblers” Liza Campbell offers a close portrait of young aspiring artist without a rudder and apparently without a compass. Ivy Wilkes, the first-person protagonist, wonders continuously about the meaning of her life, the direction it apparently isn’t taking, what mark she might leave on the world. Her friendship with Maya and the two Valdez cousins gets in the way of these potential achievements, especially when, after precious little soul-searching, she agrees to go along with an illegal money-making scheme Maya proposes.

The scheme makes use of Ivy’s artistic talent, and makes her regret her loss of innocence and her pure ambition. In fact, Ms. Campbell portrays in Ivy a shallow, vain, self-absorbed, and naïve young woman who by her own admission vacillates between arrogance and desperate inadequacy. She wants to be loved and admired, but has received very little training in how to give love or admiration to anyone else. In every particular part of her life, she makes a major mistake, fouling up each opportunity to play it straight. In every particular, she dissembles and takes the selfish way, just like all her “friends.”

“The Dissemblers” may not have attractive characters, but the writing certainly measures up. Characters’ motivations always ring true, and Ms. Campbell handles the New Mexico landscape and moods beautifully – her descriptions evoke New Mexico’s unique brand of emptiness very accurately. There could be no more appropriate setting for the dogged emptiness of Ivy’s soul. I say dogged emptiness, but the conclusion of the story includes Ivy’s first, tentative steps to resuming her passion for painting. But our author tempers even this quiet uptick in Ivy’s life: she realizes how easily she can lie to the authorities about the conspiracy.

Liza Campbell has produced an interesting study in flawed character and shady ambition. She paces the story perfectly as we follow Ivy’s anguished descent and subsequent rise. Again, the stark depictions of New Mexico’s broad-brush vacancy agree in tone and texture with the emptiness of the characters. Of all the things I admired about this novel, I rank this parallel as the topmost.

"Percival's Planet" by Michael Byers

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In “Percival’s Planet,” Michael Byers brings us the fictionalized story of the 1930 discovery of Pluto. This consists of several separate stories, really, only one of which centers on Clyde Tombaugh, the young man fresh off the Kansas farm who actually does the trick. Other narratives involve Boston Brahmins throwing their weight around, a young, beautiful, mentally ill woman, and questing after the impossible dream on all sides.

Percival Lowell set up an observatory compound on a mountaintop near Flagstaff, Arizona, late in the 19th century, for the express purpose of finding the trans-Neptunian planet he assumed must be there. The assumption was rational enough, given the revolutions of the outer planets, and led reputable astronomers like Lowell to invest in the search. Many prominent astronomers of the day began to consider it a fool’s errand, though, and to question the validity of the basic data. And when in February of 1930 Tombaugh finally finds “Planet X,” as it is codenamed, tiny Pluto is nowhere near the size it needs to be to explain the rotation effects. So after the fateful discovery, the scientists still aren’t sure what they have on their hands.

But finding Planet X is only one of the quests that urge the narrative forward. Young and deeply troubled, Mary Hempstead runs out on her ex-fighter fiancé to try to get away from demons. The fiancé eventually starts a cross-country trek to find her; Felix DuPrie, scion of massive wealth, finds fulfillment as an amateur paleontologist. The scientists and mathematicians at the observatory, Percival Lowell’s aged and intolerant widow, and of course Clyde Tombaugh himself, achieve or approach goals to varying degrees. This story contains a variety of outcomes for a variety of characters, but I don’t think I’ve spent enough time with all of them to get the overarching principle in them, if there is one.

Mr. Byers weaves the stories together with telling precision and truth. This is a grand adventure not only in cutting-edge science, but in human struggles as well. Again and again we see “how the other half lives” and how each side of the great wealth gulf stands toward the other. Mr. Byers had to tell this story on a grand scale: the exhausting search of outer space, the vertigous vistas of Arizona, the devastating stock market crash. The scale is grand, but the telling is spot-on, so readable that the pages whiz by with the speed of a hurtling planet.

"Tinkers" by Paul Harding

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Every book has its individualism. Every book has the chords that it plays, and its events, its moods, its peculiar light. “Tinkers” by Paul Harding has gray and black, done in chiaroscuro, contrasting hues that represent the universe and the deep insides of people’s souls. This remarkable, dense little book presents so many challenges in its brief pages – it’s like slicing into a geode of quartz and finding that the crystals lead to other mountain ranges, which you would have to shrink to go to, before returning to your normal size. I’m glad to quote Marilynne Robinson here, however obvious and inadequate it is: “‘Tinkers’ is truly remarkable.”

Instinct tells me that propounding the plot would do this book a disservice, but maybe we’ll let it take us to an appreciation. “Tinkers” consists of the story of father and son, each their own type of tinker. The father is the itinerant kind, who tries to make a living driving a cart with goods for sale around the countryside during the first quarter of the 20th century. The story also introduces his son, who approaches death’s door at the novel’s outset. The narrative features in stunning and clear language, the conflict that arises when individuals throw in together but are hopelessly, grandly, mismatched in their abilities to cope with life and the world. That, however, makes up but a small part of the energy and raison d’être of this book.

The salient outward event of the story comes when Howard, the older character, realizes his wife wants to institutionalize him because of his epilepsy, and he leaves her and his family one night during the dinner hour and never goes back. The following passage, illuminating his understanding that he has misread his wife’s taciturn ways, gives a glimpse at the depth of feeling Harding evokes, and the soaring language he puts in his tinker/poet’s mind. As he drives past his own house and his own family seated to dinner, never to return, we can hear him wail:

“God hear me weep because I let myself think all is well if I am fully stocked with both colors of shoeshine and beeswax for the wooden tables, sea sponge and steel wool for dirty dishes. God hear me weep as I fill out receipts for tin buckets and slip hooch into pockets for cash, and tell people about my whip-smart sons and beautiful daughters … because my wife’s silence is not the forbearance of decent, stern people who fear You; it is the quiet of outrage, of bitterness. It is the quiet of biding time. God forgive me. I am leaving.”
Such is the strength of Harding’s diction; page after page contains language powerful enough to startle us and make us pause, to make us pull out our notebooks and transcribe at length. Another I must share: on the day Howard’s mother takes his own failing father away into the care of others, “My mother opened the outside door and the light came in and carved every object in the kitchen into an ancient relic. I could not imagine what people had ever done with iron skillets or rolling pins.” In the interests of space, I will not relay any of the numerous other examples so chock-filling this book.

I will, however, observe that Mr. Harding includes a vein running through the story, consisting of a high-toned phenomenology embraced by Howard, by any measure the main character. Our first glimpse comes when Howard imagines what happens when his grand mal seizures hit. He perceives that a door opens, a door which in normal times is disguised as the natural world, and that needles of a constantly-flowing electricity find him and stick fast to him, cleaving him in the middle, holding and holding to something inside him. Howard wonders at the forces that find him at these moments. He thinks he sees death from a different vantage from ordinary humans; he is allowed glimpses of the cosmos other must die to see. Aside from this admittedly inadequate discussion, please let me assure any potential reader that this facet of the story is worth the price of admission itself, and raises the chicken-and-egg question: is Howard a poet because of his affliction, or is he blessed with these hard-won insights because of his poetic nature?

Father and son are both tinkers; the son collects antique clocks, fixes and maintains them in his business. We read a series of excerpts in the book, from an 18th-century guide to repairing clocks, which are tinged with the supernatural and philosophical. These are in fact, fitting additions to the off-the-charts language employed here. The story presents the universe as an impossibly complex machine, not unlike an antique clock. In the final flashback showing a healthy GW Crosby (the son tinker), the author guides us to the dark basement, with its numerous ticking clocks and its dark wallpaper. A solitary 40-watt wall lamp illuminates the workbench, and a grandchild is instructed to watch as GW hums and tinkers to no apparent effect. On rare occasions the tick-tocking of all the clocks would synchronize, only to diffuse again into a chaotic pattern. And then in this dark, apparently boring scene, our heroic author lets the child-guest watch the dust float in the light of the jeweler’s lamp and imagine “miniaturized ships exploring inner space: The giant is fixing the time machine.” Thus does Harding turn our space and time inside out, miniaturizing space travel and making a tinker’s basement into the center of the universe.

Time and perception blur as we grope our way along this unique trail. Like David Mitchell and Marilynne Robinson, Paul Harding once again reinforces why we read, why we look forward to the next experience of crackin' open a new one.

"How to Survive a Natural Disaster" by Margaret Hawkins

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“How to Survive a Natural Disaster” recounts the grim story of a family so dysfunctional it barely merits the name. Craig feels he was tricked into marrying Roxanne, a religious woman with a daughter from a previous marriage. She becomes pregnant but loses the baby early in her term. So desperate is she to make things work with Craig, she flies to Peru and adopts another baby girl. And it is this baby girl through whom the events and consequences play principally out.

Margaret Hawkins tells this story through first-person exposition, each main character taking its turn illuminating the story. Even the dog has part of the narrative. We watch as the “sun rises and sets” over the favored older daughter. We watch as neighbors and strangers assume the uncommunicative baby is “slow” as she continues her mute ways. The older girl’s grandmother lavishes gifts on her - April, the favorite. Through it all, the younger girl, May/Esmeralda, keeps her counsel. This utter lack of even a semblance of balance between the treatment of the two girls forces the narrative along, and gives this novel its dark energy. For Esmeralda doesn’t lack for intelligence or emotion. She has the resources, neglectfully made available by Craig, to right these wrongs.

In this piece silence fills the space left empty by all the noisome cant spoken and heard in our modern lives. The small, dark presence of May reminds us that loved ones have needs and desires not to be ignored or forgotten. This least little girl, the nearly forgotten child, owns an unseen energy that exacts a reckoning one grim day and changes everything. This brief story brims over with real humanity – all its needs, all its querulous claims, all its selfishness. The voices of the characters balance the author’s need for realistic speech and plot exposition, and this Ms. Hawkins handles superbly. Sometimes the fatuousness of the individuals hurts, as we wish they would just grow up and give of themselves a little. But this is impossible, given the family’s constitution. It’s left to a noble neighbor woman, neurotic and nearly agoraphobic, and maybe suffering from split personality disorder, to pick up the tatters of this sorry group, and help life go on.

Ms. Hawkins deserves high praise for this intrepid book. It is a dark story, but exceedingly true and unadorned. In fact, its lack of tidy, neat wrapup preserves it, and deserves our lasting admiration and gratitude. Memorable, thought-provoking, balanced, and faithful, it proves Ms. Hawkins's ability and we're all richer for her having told it.