A writer’s friendship with a mentally ill man sustains him through a painful crisis in this novel.
After a hard childhood marked by poverty, hard work, and his parents’ beatings, Stephen Christiansen, 28, has become a man of good fortune. Although he’s not yet 30, he’s already published three well-reviewed novels and works as an editor at Baltimore’s Bessemer Press, owned by his old friend Charlie Shultz. Stephen lives with Phoebe Walker, a nurse, to whom he’s been deeply devoted since he proposed marriage to her seven years ago. She never seems quite ready for a wedding, but she assures him that someday she will be. Nevertheless, Stephen keeps having disturbing, recurring nightmares about a woman on a grassy knoll who keeps fading away from him. One day, Stephen interrupts a street robbery, saves a man’s life, and gets shot himself. He becomes friends with the intended victim, Isaac Sellers, even though they’re very different; Stephen is white and affluent while Isaac describes himself as a “black, fiscally disenfranchised, schizophrenic—mentally ill—man living in America today.” Isaac is a fan of Stephen’s work and an aspiring writer, although he’s troubled by voices that order him to kill himself or his wife. Medication helps calm his symptoms but also makes Isaac, in his own words, “a drudge.” The two men begin a friendship that becomes invaluable to Stephen when his life turns upside-down. Isaac, despite his own struggles, continues to inspire Stephen as a writer and as a man. Dehmelt (The Hard Way Back to Heaven, 2015) displays a wonderful ear for dialogue in this novel, nicely capturing the easy banter between old friends or longtime lovers. He can turn a good phrase, too, as when the radiance drains from a woman’s face “as if she’s waking up the morning after a funeral.” Phoebe’s chief conflict—she can’t live up to Stephen’s fictionalized version of her, because no one could—serves the story and characters well. However, Isaac, despite his importance to the plot, is a weak creation; he sounds exactly like Stephen, possessing no original voice, and he’s also another example of the “magical minority” cliché—an outsider character of color whose sole function is to aid a white protagonist.
Strong prose, but this novel’s chief conceit falters.