A sprawling fifth outing from Oprah favorite Morris (Songs in Ordinary Time, 1995).
After serving 25 years for murder, 40-ish misfit Gordon Loomis—physically huge, emotionally withdrawn, and stunned by despairing guilt—is released from prison and returns to his Massachusetts hometown under the watchful eye and judgmental presence of his younger brother Dennis: a successful medical professional who has painstakingly distanced himself and his family from the stigma created by Gordon’s accidental smothering of a pregnant neighbor whose house he and another teenager had broken into. Morris’s eye for gritty detail and gift for springing successive narrative traps function almost perfectly in the opening chapters, which vividly render Gordon’s unease with family, co-workers (at the rundown market where he’s a bag boy), and neighbors—notably, foulmouthed adolescent Jada Fossum, who runs drugs to mollify a local dealer harassing her junkie mother, and Delores Dufault, Gordon’s former schoolmate and stubbornly devoted supporter, whose earnest offers of a new life with her constitute a bridge he cannot bring himself to cross. The juxtapositions of Gordon’s timidity with the encircling neighborhood world that keeps drawing him in reveal with poignant irony how his very selflessness and integrity keep getting him into trouble. A crush on a woman who’s beyond him ended, a vitriolic elderly neighbor’s hold over him broken, Gordon perseveres, gets his dream job—and then Morris drops the hammer. In its best pages this is a raw, painful story that carries a powerful emotional charge. But it’s marred by strident overplotting (a new crisis develops every few pages) and unconvincing characterizations, especially that of feral, street-smart Jada, who is, paradoxically, sentimentalized as cloyingly as your generic Dickensian waif. What Morris does with Delores and Gordon is infinitely truer and more moving—until a final-chapter resolution that’s almost insultingly phony.
Morris has all the tools. But they need sharpening, and better raw material.