DECEMBER 18, 2016
AN EX OF MINE would mention a quote from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden after we’d pass a man hunched in diner alone sipping coffee or a suit waiting for the bus on a dreary day: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
This idea always annoyed me. It felt like a simplification, or worse an assumption to justify the choice of a life wedded to discontent. I thought of that quote while reading Taylor Larsen’s debut novel Stranger, Father, Beloved. This time, the usage felt apt. This novel set in “the Peninsula” of Rhode Island indeed has echoes of Cheever and Updike, but Larsen pulls us into a territory that holds a modern twist.
Quiet desperation drives Stranger, Father, Beloved and reveals an unexpected portrait of a family’s life built and constructed on a lie.
I picked up the novel initially because I am writing a book about men — in particular, good men failing badly — and the premise of Stranger, Father, Beloved felt plump with possibilities. What happens when a husband, Michael James, tries to replace himself in his own life? I was in. At the outset his might appear to be a selfless act, but as the novel progresses and Michael gathers more dirt under his fingernails we see that this is an undertaking of a distressed man.
The novel is told in three viewpoints in third person: Michael, our main character; his wife, Nancy; and Ryan, their teenage daughter. Larsen’s choice feels fresh and rebels against the most recent flourishing trend in novels — alternating first person points of view. This third person distance allows the reader to feel what it’s like to be at the center of the family while preserving the haunting, removed quality in Larsen’s prose.
Larsen weaves together these narratives seamlessly as we visit each family member struggling with their own brand of confusion, passion, suppression, and complexity. We as readers are voyeurs, walking past a well-lit, beautiful home where trouble ferments inside. The novel has been compared to the film American Beauty, and I would agree that; much like Lester Burnham and family, a beautiful, slow implosion is at work in these suburbs as well.
Michael is a 42-year-old successful businessman whose talisman is a “brown prescription bottle tucked in his pocket.” We find out that he struggles with a drinking problem and an unnamed mental illness that began in college, which he treats by popping pills. The secret of his mental illness is one of the remaining bonds he has with his wife, Nancy.
Michael perceives that he must shelter Ryan and his youngest, Max, from his pain. But as all secrets do, this creates distance and tension between them. Pressure builds like a two-liter bottle of soda rolling in the back seat on a hot summer day. The reader meets these characters as they are floating even further away from each other.
The book opens at the start of a party in the James’s home that “would forever change their lives.” Michael is struggling to deal with what he has to face on a daily basis: failure and anxiety. He dreamed of being an academic and was heading that way, but he traded it in for business school. Despite his financial success, he has regretted his decision. While the party is in swing, Ryan, their teenager daughter, is upstairs and refuses to come down. The posters on her walls blare female sexuality; her favorite music is changing as fast as her growing beauty, all of which bewilders her parents.
Michael focuses on his wife Nancy, a plain woman who “had only been a nanny for Michael’s favorite professor and had never attended college herself,” in conversation with a man, John. Larsen slows down at this point and paints a scene where the reader cannot help but lean in:
Michael saw that his wife was grinning with an ecstatic happiness, and he knew he had never before elicited from her such a response of unrestrained joy. She appeared to him a different woman from the one he had married. The man was studying Nancy as she spoke, clearly amused by her, his lips parted ever so slightly, hanging on her every word, as if they were sharing a secret.
Larsen illustrates the transformation of Michael’s perception wonderfully in a single page, as Michael sees hope across the room. He sees a beginning. “It was at that moment that Michael realized, without a doubt, that this was the man Nancy should have married.”
He sets out to make that happen. Matchmaking is careful work and a difficult job lies before him. While Larsen uses Michael’s obsessive characteristics well here in the plotting. As he manipulates John, a divorced landscaper, to redesign his backyard, something else happens — his family starts acting like a family:
His fear began to evaporate in the bright sunshine, and he wanted to reach out and embrace John as they stood there. He felt lighter, more available to the world. The family had been stagnant too long, he felt. What was needed was a new presence to breath life back into them. He had arrived.
Of course, John’s assured and amicable nature only secures this spirit for a short time. After all, aren’t we all on our best behavior when company is around?
Ryan’s narratives illustrate her slow divorce from the family. She finds her father’s presence to be repelling. In a drunk and bizarre moment during a hug, he bites her neck, another striking scene that lingers long after it’s read. Ryan chooses to spend most of her time out of the house seeing a friend who is her mother’s age: a single parent, Jill. Ryan finds home in a place where she can sip vodka and avoid her parents, often crashing on the couch at Jill’s house.
This mismatched friendship is also a way for Ryan to test her newly discovered sexuality and power. “She stood in her bra and underwear, and Jill looked away. With great satisfaction she unhooked her bra and reached for the T-shirt. She saw Jill stare at her once in the mirror and then look away.”
Stranger, Father, Beloved makes frequent references to the power of physical beauty, and often the disintegration of it: “Jill’s body seemed to Ryan a blueprint for failure — her sad eyes, graying strawlike hair, her feminine parts, which had been used and abandoned, the heaviness that coated the curves of her body.”
Nancy’s dedication to Michael at times feels like a blind love. Larsen reminds us often of Nancy’s lack of sophistication and notes that caretaking is her finest currency. She carries with her an aimless hope, straining to pin it to something. One shrewd example is the way Nancy reads into the new backyard — oblivious to Michael’s grand plan at work: “Maybe the landscaping was a sign that things were changing for the better and she should just be patient. That was always the answer.”
Michael gets to know John and lines blur even more. They go out drinking; he helps him with the yard. At one point, after Michael stumbles and disappoints in bar fight, he thinks, “He wondered what John thought of him — did he see him as less of a man?” Michael is being seduced by his own game.
I don’t think I am giving anything away to say that John is a catalyst for many submerged feelings. A tightly wound surreptitious reality begins to spool out.
One thing Michael does not have in common with Kevin Spacey is the willingness for things to fall apart. Michael is doing everything in his power to put a Band-Aid over the bullet hole.
Panic seized his heart […] the disapproving look on his daughter’s face; climbing into bed beside Nancy and switching off the lamp, feeling the mild hope for sex that drifted from her side of the bed. He could feel her expectant emotions all day, every day. They never seemed to go away.
Larsen manages to steer an intricate family saga through the layers of mental illness and sexual identity, but the novel circles back to the question: what does it mean to be a good man? Stranger, Father, Beloved also asks if one lie can hide another, and if suffering can induce change.
These multiple frictions fuel the novel. Larsen pushes her people where it hurts. The more peril Michael endures the closer he becomes to figuring out who he really is. Larsen’s ability to understand the deep desires of her characters is where her brilliance lies; even if they are not realized, we know them intimately through the sheer strength and precision of her prose. She gives the reader an insight to what happens when people look away from their untold truths; she mines from the exploration a certain authenticity.
Larsen compelled this reader to such a great extent that at the novel’s end I wanted to be able to meet Michael and slip this quote to him on a bar napkin, “People can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.”
This quote, from James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, is much more fitting than Thoreau’s thoughts about quiet desperation.
Libby Flores is a 2008 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Post Road Magazine, Tin House/The Open Bar, the Guardian, The Rattling Wall, CODA Quarterly, FLASH: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Bridge Eight, and Paper Darts. She holds an MFA from Bennington College. Libby can be found at libbyflores.com.