A short, quiet novel moves very slowly through uneventful lives in the 1950s.
Bea Maxwell ages from her youth to spinsterhood without ever having a serious romantic, or sexual, relationship. Her indifference to boys, or theirs to her, was apparent as early as high school. Something may, or may not, have happened to her during a short post-college stint in Chicago before she returned to Wisconsin’s Keck Road area to stay. But with faint echoes of Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe, she’s soon selling real estate. While Bea’s the central figure here, she shares center stage with June, a college friend and sorority queen from the “new part of town,” and with Shelley, somewhat younger, a victim of polio induced, ironically, by the polio vaccine. Two things link the three women: Keck Road and Bill Alberts. Simpson (A Regular Guy, 1996, etc.) shows how development resembles destruction. In one of the story’s finer moments, local firemen practice their craft on a tree they set ablaze, then extinguish, again and again; while Bea and Shelley look on transfixed, it is a tree they remember. Meanwhile, Bill Alberts offers the women a chance at romance, but one as compromised as Keck Road’s “progress”: he’s an unhappily married philanderer whose one true passion is jazz drumming. Across several decades, Alberts carries on flirtations with all three women, or they with him, but their dalliances never find swing time. Neither, unfortunately, does Off Keck Road. Not much happens in these lives, or in this place, over those decades. the story simply covers too much time with too little incident. History barely intrudes. And by alternating sections between Bea and Shelley, the energies get dispersed: what the novel’s about is almost defiantly concealed until nearly two thirds through. Which is too bad, because when the pace finally accelerates and the dramatic focus resolves, Simpson’s careful, quirky eye finds poignancy, even grace, in these simple lives.
Before it finally finds its groove, though, the slow pace and soft diffusiveness try the patience.