In Wallace's (The Housekeeper, 2006, etc.) tightly structured third novel, unspoken feelings and long-endured suffering give birth to love and acceptance among the residents of a New England town.
Withdrawn mothers, surrogate daughters, and sympathetic men with scarred faces come in pairs in Wallace’s latest novel, which has unusually visible authorial fingerprints all over it. Narrated by six voices in the years 1974 and 1977, the story connects a group of isolated individuals in a backwater port town. One character links them all: a young mother named June, who arrives with her baby, Luke, at Mabel’s motel and is soon abandoned there by the child’s father. June, whose wastrel mother has taught her that “desertion [is] a normal state of being,” is saved by a human chain of compassion composed of Mabel herself; her rich-widow friend, Iris; a benevolent loner named Oldman; and Sam, a physically and psychically scarred Vietnam vet. The only figure uncommitted to June is Iris’ estranged daughter, Claire, who also, in her time, experienced Oldman’s loving aid. Wallace’s heightened approach to her narrative is evident not just in its symmetries, but also in the extremes and absolutes she invokes. Iris’ marriage contained a bizarre secret which led her, after her husband died, to withdraw utterly from the world. Oldman “would do everything, anything” for June because she is the double of a refugee he loved during World War II. For Sam, ruined and isolated after his war injuries, “not even his father had called him [son], no officer or nurse or doctor…had ever put a consoling hand on his shoulder.” Delivered in short story–like chapters, packed with narration but almost devoid of dialogue, this mannered tale is written in prose that is both lovely and sometimes as self-conscious as the book’s composition.
Too much engineering tends to suck the life out of a sensitive salvation story.