A writerly, claustrophobic story about the collapse of a California marriage.
In the disintegrating coastal town of Mercy, which is experiencing a financial meltdown, Maurice Melnick, the descendant of the 19th-century founder, living in a magisterial home inherited from his industrious father, feels trapped and static in his 20-year childless marriage with glum, self-deprecating Sheila. He decides to paint a picture of her (he was an aspiring painter before he turned to graphics), which promises to be a final offering of love, or parting. While he tries to capture her smile, fast growing into a frown, Sheila—who’s suspicious of the portrait and sees it as another failed attempt by her fat, aging, alcoholic husband—hooks up with her more glam girlhood friend Holly, attractive and game for taking self-betterment classes, such as the class in fencing they both attend at the Y. Yet neither Maurice nor Sheila is able to transcend middle-aged torpor or their pampered, inherited lifestyle. Maurice begins to be visited by a kind of Faustian imp, Jonah, who plays on Maurice’s fears of being trapped in water and swallowed by a fish, and reminds him naggingly of his life’s many failures; while Sheila, still smarting from the insufficient attention she received as a child from her father, believes that “any love could be saved.” Meanwhile, the town is on the verge of collapse, mayor Zach is a dipsomaniac and the factory might as well be labeled “Made in the Philippines.” Maurice and Sheila have the brilliant idea of staging a great fireworks display, and amid the jumping of ship by various citizenry, Maurice is left to take command.
Second-timer Toth (Fizz, 2003) tries for a metaphysical leap into contemporary ennui, but his prose is so choked in metaphor that the slender novel feels denser than it is, stoically literary but fairly unreadable. A self-conscious work offering little pleasure, much stylistic angst.