LOVE BY DROWNING, by C.E. Poverman, is the kind of novel you want to tuck into on that redeye across country, a psychological thriller you can fall into and will take you away into the night. The question here isn’t so much "Who done it?" as "Will the backstory ever relinquish its hold on its hostages?" Val is struggling to break free from his own history. “He felt that he had stumbled through a maze and now, for the first time in years, he had emerged to come back to his real self.”
The Martin brothers, Val and Davis, dream about running a boat business together, but their father insists it’s too impractical. Like many people scourged by economic insecurity in their youth, this father wants his boys to have guaranteed futures. Davis, the favored son, is athletic, handsome, brilliant with his hands, but hobbled by dyslexia. His father is deeply disappointed when he settles for a blue-collar life as a gearhead.
Val, who is two years older, makes it into Harvard Law, but we somehow get that it should have been the younger brother. Val, acting out his father’s imperatives, awakens to the real the business of law when, as a summer intern, he learns that those who know the law best can break it best. Disillusioned, he abandons his education and gets a job crewing a marlin fishing boat. The prose keeps a tense balance between the liberatory and the ominous:
Slowed by days of rain and poor visibility, by the shifting channels of the inland waterway and the inside speed limit, Val worked his way south, calling home less and less as his father maintained his disapproving silence. Now he felt released into a new life, a bigger life, his real life, one he’d been trying to reach, each day the sky huge, the water beautiful, but often — so empty of boats — foreboding.
It’s no surprise that he reconnects with Davis and that they try to resurrect the old dream. Of course, their father is incensed, but more than that, he’s alarmed for Davis. As always, he instructs Val, “Take care of Davis. Don’t let him out of your sight.” That’s the set up.
Enter the marvelous Lee Anne. Poverman renders this delicious villain beautifully. Her hostility is almost inadvertent; like the other characters, she too is merely correcting her own history. Like the dangerous waters that pervade the world of this book, she is changeable and impervious to the conventional boundaries that would inhibit most people. For Lee Anne, doors, locks, and gates have no meaning except as minor annoyances. Nothing can be hidden from her, and there is nobody she can’t find once she is motivated. She just appears. Inside Val’s home in Arizona. Inside his psyche from the beginning. As Davis says when he discovers she has tracked him down after he has abandoned her, “You can’t say ‘no’ to this chick.” Unfortunately, once the brothers lock onto the same woman, somebody’s got to go.
Quite a few platinum blonds in this book — all troubled in some way. Lee Anne. Davis. Val’s son Michael. Throughout the book, Poverman wrestles with the implications of light and loss, darkness and depth. This is not a spoiler — I am quoting from page four — “Beneath him, Davis and the marlin got smaller and smaller, shimmering into a deeper twilight blue, then disappeared into the black,” Poverman writes. “Val looked up, surface distant, the sun huge and undulating...” His brother is dead.
In another episode, Val’s boat has capsized, and he is tangled and almost drowning himself; he watches as “the flashlight, a tiny point of light far beneath him, disappeared completely into the black.”
Having failed at the assignment of being his brother’s keeper, Val tries nonetheless to have a life. He leaves the Atlantic coast, boats, and all they represent as far behind as he can. He finds himself a healthy mate, sires a boy, and then begins the disquieting business of fatherhood. He tries to soldier on without his brother or his father’s forgiveness only to realize that something is wrong. All this unfinished business begins to detonate in his teenage son, Michael in his 14th year. Somehow, this boy who was born after Davis has died, is starting to develop the identical self-defeating patterns. The defiance. A brilliant mind that suddenly can’t manage even mediocre grades. He also has that same ability to read Val’s duplicities. But the deepest cut is that he has become besotted with a boat — even landlocked as they are among the cacti of Arizona. Somehow Michael knows that dark waters are exciting, challenging, and somehow the destiny of the Martin clan.
Val is helpless, watching this movie play itself backwards (the actual title of a chapter). Not only does he see Davis in his own kid, but he finds himself acting toward Michael exactly as his father had toward Davis. He sees his own attitude solidifying Michael’s sullen defiance, just as his father had alienated Davis. He can barely contain it when Michael hurls this challenge at him. “You be straight with me, I’ll be straight with you.” He flares with anger, and in spite of his better judgment he finds himself shouting orders and demanding submission. This quintessential American response to a challenge — Got a problem? Carpet bomb the son of a bitch — will not work with this kid. As Lao Tzu said a thousand years ago; where the army has marched through, thorns spring up.
Having watched Davis literally sink beneath the sea, and his father die a bitter death, Val sees the patterns that poisoned their lives alive and thriving. He must face the fact that he is the common denominator. He knows he must learn to respect his son’s wisdom, whether either of them can articulate it or not. But he doesn’t know how to do that. He can see what doesn’t work with Michael, but he still he doesn’t know what will.
Enter, (literally, once again), the inimitable Lee Anne, who has never really gone away. Val’s wife notices something fishy. Val does his best to deny it. As Val prepares to revisit the site of the original family crime to gain as much information about what happened as he can, he is aware that he now is in danger of losing his current family altogether, of being subsumed by that old, cold history. But he has no alternative. He must locate the point in the narrative where he can make a different choice. The Nautilus-like structure of this book can be at times a bit confusing. Especially toward the end, as Val revisits his earlier history, there is some necessary disorientation. The life of the psyche, which operates parallel to the physical life, occasionally overtakes even the most skillful sailor.
C.E. Poverman is a capable writer who clearly knows the world of marlin fishing. Many fascinating nuggets are scattered about in this volume, ones that work as both revelations of a world and as potent metaphors. For example, if the fisherman had been able to settle for the huge trophy that he brought in that first day, rather than greedily having to hook the biggest fish in the entire competition, Davis might not have been killed. And the marlin that took Val’s brother was by no means the largest. Wouldn’t have made the record books. In a later pivotal scene, the flaw that sinks the boat is minor. “It didn’t take much — sometimes only a screw knocked out from a swim ladder below the waterline; in two or three hours a bilge could fill.” There is such satisfying verisimilitude in these kinds of details. It may well be that the technical aspects of handling a boat could be rendered a bit more clearly in some places. I found myself rereading the section where Davis was lost, struggling a bit to understand the difference between “the leader” and “the piano wire” that bound him to that fish. I am still not clear whether that is my failing or the author’s.
The intersection between Lee Anne’s history and Val’s fuels the final chapter of this book. The final resolution? Cherchez la femme.