A would-be writer’s painful journey toward self-understanding, as seen in this thickly plotted fourth novel from veteran Thompson (Wide Blue Yonder, 2002, etc.).
The primary viewpoint character is Jack Orlovich, a Californian-born Northwestern University student who’s smitten with forthright beauty Chloe Chase (whom he encounters in a poetry-writing class), marries her on the rebound from their tense subsequent meetings, and settles down with in Chicago, as a sometimes-employed househusband, while Chloe supports them as a junior bank executive. Fissures in their marriage’s surface emerge, then gradually widen. Chloe’s binge drinking leads her to blame Jack’s failure to be breadwinner. Complaining about loud music played by their scruffy upstairs neighbor Rich Brezak (“Hippie Pothead Rasta Boy”) brings Jack into unplanned intimacy with Brezak’s female ménage—notably, a sexually inviting crippled girl called Ivory. The moribund loneliness of their apartment building’s other tenants clutches at them like a communicable disease. Meanwhile, the issue of starting a family pushes Chloe and Jack nearer the edge; a visit from her ebullient parents climaxes at a Cubs’ game where Jack tangles with a drunken fan; and exploding fireworks during a rooftop July 4th celebration maim and disfigure another of Rich’s girls. Thompson subtly communicates Jack’s unvoiced fear that the perpetually stoned, reckless Brezak is what he himself may become—an insight borne out by the long, packed climax, in which infidelity, unwanted pregnancy, violent death, recriminations, and partings fold in on one another with the accelerating force of a sentence of doom. It’s all rather too much—though there’s a whiff of real tragic power in Jack’s tardy realization that “Chloe was what he’d had inside him . . . . Now he would be like anyone else, shrunk down to normal.”
An overfamiliar tale, redeemed considerably by solid writing and sobering empathy.