I used to read a lot more contemporary American fiction. Realistic stuff, regionalist. Dirty realism, as it was amusingly called in an old issue of Granta. Bobbie Ann Mason and Tobias Wolff are the two writers whose work has really stuck with me, although I have not made much effort to keep up with either of them.
Jean Thompson’s new novel The Year We Left Home (2011) is comparably good. Over thirty years, four siblings and a cousin leave their home in rural Iowa, sometimes traveling far, sometimes just down the street. Each chapter is focused, often self-contained: we spend time with a single character in a single enlightening moment, ending in a dramatic Joycean epiphany, or perhaps a squelching anti-epiphany where nothing is learned.
For example, in the first chapter (January 1973) young Ryan is helping out at his sister’s wedding (“The whole import of the wedding embarrassed him powerfully, though he could not have said why”). Ryan gets stoned with his cousin Chip and they philosophize about family, Vietnam, and hideous AM radio hits. Ryan and Chip will be contrasted on a recurring basis as the novel goes on: restless sense versus free-ranging nonsense. Sense has less fun but gets to keep his teeth.
Early in the chapter we are introduced to Uncle Norm and Aunt Martha, stereotypical Lutheran farmers, representatives of Restful Sense, as well as hard work, reticence, “privation, thrift, cleanliness, and joyless charity,” and enormous quantities of food (“potatoes topped with shredded orange cheese, beef in gravy, chicken and biscuits, corn pudding”), the home the kids will leave.
Now Thompson has set us up for Ryan’s epiphany. The wedding band starts into a swing tune. Uncle Norm has a can of Dance Wax:
Little powdery flakes, like snow falling inside. Then Aunt Martha joined him, and the two of them clasped hands, Norm’s arms around her waist. They stepped together, stepped and twirled and glided, up and down and round and round, some fast step they must have learned back when they were kids and had been practicing ever since in some unsuspected secret life that included fun, moving in perfect time with each other and the jazzy music. (19)
It may take Ryan thirty years to absorb the moment, but we have the whole novel ahead of us for that.
Thompson’s prose does not get much fancier, although she has her little flights, like a wintry Carl Sandburg parody (215) or a bit of simple Nabokovian plotting (“the god of coincidences couldn’t be expected to attend to everything ,” 287), or a hilarious ranting visiting artist:
“But you know something? Those guys [Drake University art students] are never going to do squat, because they have all the creativity of one of the four basic food groups. They might as well be dark green leafy vegetables or dairy products.” (306)
A lot to like here. A lot of “Yes, it’s just like that!” For whatever reason, the contemporary writers that attract my attention are the international Modernists, the Surrealists and innovators and wild-eyed loons. I do not read so much of the kind of thing Jean Thompson writes, The Way We Live Now 2011. But it’s not because the insights are not true or the writing is not good. I assume there are plenty of recent American novels as good as The Year We Left Home. Well, no; a few as good.