A psychologically circuitous debut tracks a confidence man’s malevolently seductive influence on a bland and uptight Ohio family.
Shoe (Susan) Tumarkin, 34, has been senselessly murdered, execution style, in the Colorado woods, leaving her five-year-old son Moses in the care of Shoe’s maidenish painter sister Ida. Ida adores Moses but has never seen much of the world, having shunned its luxurious pleasures in favor of living at her childhood Ohio home with her emotionally distant mother, a convalescent, and retiring professor father. Ida will wait for her true love to find her, whatever form he takes, and he does, though he happens to be Moses’s wayward father, Max Frost, an art dealer and monstrous egomaniac, whom the reader meets as Shoe’s last lover in a titillating backstory. Before her murder, Shoe, in fact, fled Max because of his distaste for her feet—a metaphor for his desire to change all women into his demented ideal. Similarly, once Max enchants the guileless and over-30 virgin Ida, he unveils extravagant plans to remake her, too—to the horror of Ida and of Shoe’s brother Johnny, who seems the only character here with a grip on reality. Once the reader accepts the effortless—and preposterous—introduction of beguiling Max into the Tumarkin household (Mrs. Tumarkin will even attend the physician he recommends and dutifully take his pills), the premonitions of Ida’s trip down the road to ruin read like exquisite torture—when, for example, as part of Max’s cruel deflowering of his fiancée, he prescribes porn movies for her to study. Mockler lets her story unfold with an undernourished relish, thanks to the naively determined protagonist Ida, who could be at home in an E.M. Forster novel. Still, the writing can drift wanly, draining substance from things. The reader hopes for edges and blood but finds only weak characters and pale prose.
A highly suppressed first effort that can’t move beyond its hard-to-swallow premise.