A Good and Happy Child
Could the difference be plot? No, most novels driven by plot tend to stint on character. Perhaps the difference might be good and memorable characters? Crucial, but no, not that either, as great characters often populate dull novels. Dialogue that does more than lie flat on the page? In some senses, yes, as few writers are truly able to use dialogue to tell the tale, provide narative momentum, and include depth and breadth via exposition. Perhaps big ideas? No, in fact the difference between a merely good and the great novel is a combination of all those crucial elements plus writerly style... a special quality that Justin Evans achieves with seemingly effortless grace in his first published novel, A GOOD AND HAPPY CHILD.
I stepped back, wounded. She fumbled for the second key, hands shaking now. This violent separation from the past was too much to bear. Maggie and I opening this door together hundreds of times. Giddy. Grumpy. Drunk. Stamping snow off our boots. Sun-baked and sweaty. Maggie bending at the waist, Hurry, I gotta pee so bad. With shopping bags. With new furniture. With friends. With her gentleness and patience and beauty, Maggie had redeemed me once -- from the rootless misery of a volatile, self-loathing youth. Why couldn't she pull that trick again? Yet here I was, stale-smelling and red-eyed, pulling at her like a beggar. I was Grendel, a monster gazing longingly at a campfire from my place in the woods. The past seemed so close. I wished to reach out, dip my hand into that other dimension, be her husband again, rewind back to our first date at an East Village bar, drinking dirty martinis and swiveling on barstools like kids. I gripped Maggie's face with both hands. I forced a kiss on her. It worked. The sensations returned: her full lips, her scent -- same perfume, I noted -- the nearby jangle of earring, the tickle of her curly hair, her presence, her aura, the slight clamminess from a ride on the subway, the end-of-day fatigue... it was all still there -- a destination in itself, a place where I'd been happy...The passage above is simply brilliant, and on many levels. In addition to its textual relevance -- it causes sympathy, if not empathy, for the readers to the two characters -- it has as well a meta value: it tells the author's tale in minature. The words Evans chooses to limn the everyday scene are words that could describe his obvious tale, and do. Could Evans, in fact, be using style to convey his true message, his novel's sub-text?
How could I resist? I was seeking your help, your skills. These were founded on medical science, medical training -- secular knowledge. Your world (as I perceived it in these sessions) represented the Enlightened Good Life -- education, competence, prosperity -- a French garden of secular virtues. My religious beliefs, on the other hand, splashed on the walls a wild spectacular of fear and hope. Christ heaving and bleeding on the cross. Demons feasting on souls as they plunge into hell. The ecstasy that might one day lift us from the grave. Between the two, a lonely vacuum yawned, where neither set of rules applied. Depression. Lousy marriages. The conformist game of corporate life. That baseline throb of anxiety in a city where you fought crowds for every job, every apartment, even a spot near the pole on the subway. If you keep fighting on both fronts, you seemed to say, the physical and metaphysical, you will lose. Choose your real life. Your hand reached for me. I wanted to take it. Did it come to this -- that if I were to accept all the good you could offer me, I must also accept, as a whole, the world-view that supported it? "My father used to quote Shakespeare on this one," I said, a conflicted smile torturing my face...There are several moments in the snippet above that floor me; I note but one. How is it that a smile "tortures" a face -- is it not typical that a smile does precisely the opposite? Why, then, do these words - words that help to illustrate conflict in the characters' universe, and the readers' perceptual reactions to that reality - reside within the confines of the same sentence? What is the writer's (i.e., Evans's) true message...?
A lot of buzz surrounds this novel; in fact, I tend to be skeptical that buzz this omni-present is in fact hyperbole. Not this time, however; Justin Evans has written a cracker of a tale, told exceedingly well, that startled me time and again. I could not slow my reading pace, as I wanted to know everything about all the characters (with many surprises slowly and lovingly revealed) as I also hoped to discover as soon as possible how the story resolves itself. I do not want to spoil anyone's reading experience (I encourage all readers of fiction to read this book!), but there are several surprise twists of plot and character, each holding fast and true to the story's own internal sense of logic. This novel merits a one word exhortation: Wow!
I hoped this novel would not end, but, alas, it has. Which leaves me to pay Justin Evans the best compliment a reader can offer to a writer: I will purchase and read your next book. And the one after that. Just keep 'em coming!
Full Disclosure: Long this novel, and damned proud of it!
-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist