The unsparing realism displayed in Thompson’s story collections The Gasoline Wars (1979) and Who Do You Love (1999) is blended with a new (and very welcome) warmth and humor in her bighearted third novel: it reads like a journey into Anne Tyler country, with Thomas Berger and John Irving along for the ride.
The opening 50-plus pages comprise a master class in expository technique, as Thompson introduces us to four vividly imagined characters, lays out their interrelationships, and sets them on a collision course that leads inexorably to a (ever so slightly forced) melodramatic climax. Reclusive Harvey Sloan, a.k.a. “Local Forecast,” lives in mentally deranged squalor in a rundown house (in Springfield, Illinois) that’s a shrine to his inexplicable fixation on TV weather programs. His sister-in-law Elaine is an aging divorcée burdened by her demanding “home accessories” business and her rebellious teenager Josie—and also by her ex-husband’s neglect of (his brother) hopeless Uncle Harvey (whose many problems include incipient blindness). Meanwhile, in LA, ethnic misfit Rolando Gottschalk, an unstable petty criminal, begins making his way east, graduating to increasingly dangerous misbehavior. And Josie’s whirlwind affair with a handsome cop hits the skids, sending her to Uncle (actually, he’s her great-uncle) Harvey’s house for sanctuary, just as Harvey is refusing cataract surgery and planning to wed his non-English–speaking cleaning lady Rosa, and Rolando, “armed and crazy” and hallucinating at full throttle, descends on Springfield. The long denouement is fairly contrived. But readers won’t mind, because its characters are so eccentric and engaging they all but leap off the pages. The mother-daughter warfare between Josie and Elaine is blissfully, murderously funny and touching, while Thompson performs little miracles of tact and suggestiveness with both Rolando’s (really scary)dementia and Harvey’s occluded, motley point of view (though the eventual explanation of what drove him crazy is awfully topical and predictable).
Somebody is going to make a terrific movie out of Wide Blue Yonder. It’s a pretty terrific novel.