A sprawling, ambitious debut novel traces the fates of a handful of characters, each one caught up in the lives of the others.
Eddie, a black Navy man, steals a copy of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead from an officer during the Vietnam War. For the rest of his life, he carries it with him, reciting lines. His youngest daughter, Claudia, grows up to be a Shakespeare scholar. She marries Rufus, the white son of a philanderer, who finds out, as an adult, that he has a half brother named Hank who grew up in Buckner County, Georgia. Agnes is black and came from Buckner County, too, but left after a traumatic incident on a dark road involving two white policemen and her boyfriend. Agnes marries Eddie, the Navy man, and moves to New York. Porter’s fantastic debut novel is a whirl of characters spidering outward through time and space. The novel tracks a half dozen of them, all connected to each other, more or less, in one way or another, from the 1950s through 2010. Agnes and the thing that happened to her one night on Damascus Road form the dark heart of the book. Everything else seems to radiate, at least tangentially, from that. When she was a girl, Agnes’ parents took in an almost-orphan, Eloise, with whom Agnes grows up, sharing a bedroom and, eventually, a bed. Agnes is Eloise’s one true love, but Agnes eventually refuses to see Eloise, and they grow distant. But this is just one of Porter’s storylines. There are several, and while they are each gripping and vivid in their own ways, so much action crowds the book. There isn’t enough space to get to know the characters; put another way, there’s a distancing between the narrator and the characters—Agnes in particular—as though they are being held at arm’s length. We see them from the outside, not the inside, even when they are narrating their own stories.
Beautifully written and intricately plotted, Porter’s novel falters only when she seems to step back from her characters, to stand at the edge of the water instead of jumping in.