A middle-aged man leaves his partner of more than 20 years for an uncomfortable new life, where he's forced to confront the nuances of his past in this debut novel by Flannery O’Connor Award–winning Ostlund (The Bigness of the World, 2009).
Realizing he's no longer in love with Walter—a man he’s known and been with for almost his entire adult life—Aaron Englund packs his bags, leaves their Albuquerque home in the middle of the night, and drives to San Francisco. There, he lives in a garage beneath a warring couple, teaches at a dilapidated ESL school, and plumbs deep wells of his own memories: the death of his abusive father, a police officer who fell from a lurching parade float; a childhood in an isolated Minnesota town with his ghostlike mother; and the many souls he encountered in his odd, solitary youth. The narrative departs from his present life in small doses and large swaths, carrying the reader through levels of narration—Aaron recounting his past, Aaron reliving his past, Aaron in his past listening to a story of someone else’s past. The building blocks of this novel are anecdotes, in all of their illuminating, messy glory. Everything here aches, from the lucid prose to the sensitively treated characters to their beautiful and heartbreaking stories. As for Aaron's flashbacks, they are winding toward a kind of reveal, a moment of personal history he's dancing around throughout, but it is not treated as the single key to his psyche; rather, it’s one more story that needs to be told alongside all the others.
An example of realism in its most potent iteration: not a neatly arranged plot orchestrated by an authorial god but an authentic, empathetic representation of life as it truly is.