If the words “first novel” and “arrival of a major American talent” appear on the front flap of a dust jacket, you can almost be sure that the picture on the back flap will depict some impossibly lovely product of good breeding and expert dentistry, a sloe-eyed or square-jawed recent graduate of one of the top-tier creative writing programs, with a face made up to hide the blemishes of acne scars not too distantly inflicted. Big-time publishing is now as enamored of youth as every other aspect of the culture, and aspiring writers seem to be losing their virginity at ever younger ages to an industry that came rather late to the realization that sex can sell mediocre books as well as it sells anything else.
It’s something of a surprise, then, to come upon two first novels written by balding guys in their 50s. In addition to this superficial similarity, both books explore the dislocations forced on families touched by tragedy during the Great Depression. Though neither Waterborne nor The Vanishing Moon is without flaws, each is an ambitious effort that heralds the arrival of an intriguing pentagenarian talent.
In Waterborne, Bruce Murkoff steers four characters toward a fateful meeting at the Boulder Dam–later renamed for President Hoover–during its epic building in the 1930s. The first half of the book gives us these characters’ histories in alternating strands of flashback; the second half vividly evokes the construction of the dam near the anomalous oasis of Las Vegas, a newborn city flush with vice and cash at a time when the rest of the country is mired in dust and degradation.
Filius Poe is an engineer from Wisconsin whose son drowned in a sailing accident, whose wife later died of a broken heart and whose only remaining dream is to be a part of the damming of the Colorado River. Lena McCardell is a divorcée from Oklahoma who comes west with her young son Burr at the behest of her best friend, who tantalizes them with visions of a fresh start in the desert. And Lew Beck is a pitiless man whose near-midget size disguises a vicious temper that spreads a trail of blood and death in its wake.
Murkoff’s prose style is vigorous and ruggedly American, inflected with a pinch of Bellow and DeLillo, and he’s at his best when he applies it to the grandeur of the Western landscape, or scenes of men massed in industrial armies to tame that landscape. When Filius takes Lena for a look at the dam site–an unconventional means of courting, to say the least–we see it through her dazzled eyes:
Rows of powerful arc lights lined the banks of the river, their wide beams trained on the trestle bridge and the long line of trucks that lumbered forward in the cobalt haze. Lena watched their vast shadows slowly transmogrify into eerie abstractions and demonic contortions, then shrink into boxy clarity as the trucks came closer to the lights. Flagmen who walked into the beams were turned into colossal shadow puppets, their profiles stretched in ghoulish caricature, and below all the bright lights, the river flowed as harsh and roughskinned as hammered steel.
For all his facility as a poet of collective endeavors, Murkoff falters with the fine points. Too many of his subsidiary characters are clichés: Lena’s ex-husband, for instance, a pious traveling salesman of religious literature who–surprise–practiced bigamy on the sly; or the lingerie salesman who gives Lena and Burr a lift across the desert and who–surprise–tries to slip his hand up Lena’s dress while she naps in the passenger seat. Lew Beck, who sleeps with his thumb in his mouth, spends the novel wreaking havoc on the skulls of anyone who so much as looks cross-eyed at him–a violent streak we’re meant to believe is the result of his having been picked on as a boy for being a runt. His Oedipal issues run so deep we can only assume he hates his father for bequeathing him downsized DNA. On rare visits home to Los Angeles, he wings a hammer through Papa’s butcher-shop window, or breaks the old man’s fingers for kicks.
The novel might have shouldered these burdens on the beauty of the prose alone if Murkoff hadn’t devised an ending straight out of Louis L’Amour. Lew is the swaggering outlaw with a pistol on his hip; Filius, the taciturn guardian of order and harmony in a land too often lawless. When Burr and Filius, the latter shot in the shoulder by the raging Lew, fall off the canyon’s lip into the reservoir behind the dam, Filius gets his second chance–surprise–to save a boy from drowning. To keep myself amused, I imagined a play on Ronald Reagan’s famous phrase in the cantankerous voice of Edward Abbey: “Mr. Murkoff, tear this dam down!” Murkoff could’ve used a dose of Abbey’s mischievous humor; at the very least, he might have thrown a monkey wrench into his narrative, just to scramble things and keep us guessing. “Anyone who takes this book seriously will be shot,” Abbey slyly said of the sequel to his famous novel of dam-loathing. Murkoff writes as if he’ll shoot us if we don’t.
Joseph Coulson’s The Vanishing Moon is a sadder, quieter and more affecting work. It follows a Midwestern family through three generations of failed ambition and romantic blunders, and at its best it explores human frailty with the simplicity and directness of haiku. Composed of four discrete sections, narrated in turn by different characters, the novel at times achieves the quiet beauty of William Maxwell’s finest work–generous, episodic, elegiac but not sentimental.
In the long first section, told in the voice of Stephen Tollman, Coulson seems to want to bring Faulkner to Ohio. Phil Tollman, Stephen’s older brother, arrives in the world with a smoldering rage at the death of his stillborn twin. The family lives in Cleveland until Stephen’s father loses his job at a radio repair shop at the onset of the Depression. They set up camp in a canvas tent in the woods, not far from a dark little shack occupied by an old man whom the children take to calling Wormwood. A haunting figure who dresses all in black, Wormwood watches the four Tollman kids from afar, focusing most intently on Margie, a pubescent nymph with the unselfconscious beauty of a Rust Belt Lolita. Mr. Tollman stands haplessly by while his wife slowly goes blind; the children roam the woods, amusing themselves with daydreams and games.
We’ve seen this show before, I’m afraid. It’s a simple game of either/or. Will Mr. Tollman cling with pathos and guilt to the wife he can’t afford to take to the eye doctor, or will his shame force him to abandon the family? Will Wormwood be revealed as a dark prince of cunning and violence, or a spooky but misunderstood saint? When Margie dies in ambiguous circumstances after a visit to Wormwood’s shack, I couldn’t help but feel a bit befuddled by the lack of vital details; only later is the reader directly told the truth of what happened, and the gap between the death and the confirmation of its cause feels like a narrative trick.
Coulson’s most convincing narrators are two post-adolescents who share the middle portion of the book. One of them, Katherine, tells of her affairs with the brothers Tollman–first with Stephen, and then, when he proves too dull for her tastes, with the darker and more dangerous Phil. This is one instance in which the sex does sell us something worth buying. Coulson’s treatment of youthful lust is erotic in the best sense of the word–a perfect blend of candor and discretion. Katherine, a talented pianist and great beauty, a communist with progressive parents, is the most alluring–in every sense of the word–character in the book.
Later, Phil’s son James takes the narrative baton. We’re now in 1960s Detroit. Phil and Stephen work at General Motors. Stephen, still mourning the loss of Katherine’s love, remains unmarried, while Phil rages drunkenly at the woman he married after leaving Katherine to join the Army. Here Coulson connects his characters to a whole range of American subjects–World War II and Vietnam, fast cars and baseball, racial tensions and industrial decline–but he does it obliquely, as a backdrop to the family drama. “My father disliked the fact that his sons were musicians,” James says of the garage band he forms with his brother. “He believed that rock ‘n’ roll led to muscle cars, loud stereo systems, strange politics, and general irresponsibility”–a sad development for a guy whose most passionate affair was with a communist piano player.
When James’s girlfriend begs him to accompany her to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he begs off. Like many middle-class children of the time, James and his brother only caught the televised version of the revolution. In retellings of the 1960s–whether historical, personal or fictional–the story of kids like them has often been elided in favor of the colorful antics of the Yippies, or the fierce struggles of SNCC and SDS and the reactionaries who opposed them. Coulson brings a whole demographic into stark relief here, the demographic–and the attitude–that ultimately triumphed by its example of self-absorbed passivity. Consider this, a passage that begins as a gentle hymn to first love and baseball:
I loved the smell of the ballpark, a sweet mix of dirt and grass and steamed hot dogs and beer. I loved the grit beneath my feet and the stickiness of the chairs. I loved the short left-field wall and the impossible depth of center field. I loved that Maria had fallen in love with me here and that I’d fallen in love with her. I loved the scent of her skin, the way she whistled, the way she walked and talked and watched. I loved the excitement of our bodies melding with the excitement of the game. I loved the way she kissed me when our team took the lead.
There were times at Tiger Stadium when we felt safe, when we felt a certain kind of hope for Detroit and for ourselves. Baseball, we knew, followed its own tragic cycles. Great players faded into bitter legends of injury and dissipation. Others betrayed the game itself or were betrayed by it. But in those days we ignored the changing seasons. Always we returned to the ballpark, the satisfying geometry of field, fence, and foul line. It stood as a bulwark against losses we could not imagine. Losses we could not understand. Somehow we felt that the world would make sense only as long as we stayed in our seats.
This subtle swivel between the personal and the apolitical is so deft you could be forgiven for missing it. We ignored the changing seasons. The world would make sense only as long as we stayed in our seats. The Tollman family, so entranced by familial dramas, so averse to public displays of passion and collective endeavor–at least outside a ballpark–lets the world go by without grabbing hold of it. Their tragedy is, in many ways, the tragedy of American life in the latter part of the twentieth century; we spend more time in our seats than ever.
After his early flirtation with elements of prairie gothic, Coulson serves up that tragedy without a hint of sermonizing. This is as real as realism gets.