Harrowing first novel about the uneasy symbiosis of an addict and his mother.
Del Merrick, a retired high-school art teacher, inhabits an upstate New York fieldstone farmhouse, which has become the repository of family tragedy. In 1977, her husband, Lee, shot himself in their barn. In 1995, her younger son Aaron drowned, a probable suicide, after living in isolation in a cabin he built on the Merrick property. Now Del returns from a Florida vacation to find that her heroin-addicted, manic-depressive son Mark has once again hit bottom. He’s holed up in his loft, from which he’s blocked out the sun with blankets. The stone house is a mess: garbage piling up, the reek of chain-smoking, cigarette burn-holes everywhere, nothing but rotting food in the refrigerator, every dish unwashed. Overcoming her winter driving phobia, Del takes Mark to yet another detox center some 300 miles north. Mark, whose point of view alternates with Del’s, is a well-drawn and sympathetic character, despite the unflinching portrayal of his narcissism—there’s no one he won’t manipulate while ricocheting between recovery and relapse. At 62, Del yearns for the artistic release that family turmoil has always denied her, for time to draw or recharge at an art colony. She’s hoping Mark, at 37, is finally ready to launch: He’s entered long-term residential treatment. However, one phone call could disrupt her respite at anytime. Howard’s strength, besides lapidary language, is the ability to build scenes around quotidian activities: starting a wood stove, cleaning, walking a dog, cooking chili and, in a pivotal segment, plotting to banish a large colony of attic-dwelling bats. The red tape and repetitiveness of coping with an addicted adult child fuels suspense as the most pressing question persists: Will Del ever be free of the onus, even just in memory, of caring for all the tormented men in her life?
Such stark scenarios will be cathartic for readers who have dealt with them firsthand, and profoundly cautionary for those who haven’t.