Monday, November 28, 2011

Some unsuspected secret life that included fun - Jean Thompson's The Year We Left Home

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.


  1. I've been looking for contemporary American novelists who will make me run out to buy their entire catalogue. So far I haven't fallen in love with anyone. The irony of course is that I'm currently writing a contemporary American novel.

  2. Buy the entire catalogue? No, I won't do that. If the urge strikes, I'll read a collection of Thompson's short stories - I'll bet they're similarly good.

    Now, if someone else would buy - or borrow from the library, that would be fine - all of Thompson's books and report back, that would be a good project. Only six books, I think.

    Anyway, I'm not looking for love. Just good sentences.

  3. Let's say instead, maybe, that I want to find someone who will make me want to read more than one of their books, who will make me seek out another one of their novels.

    "I'm not looking for love. Just good sentences."

    Same thing in my world.

  4. Once I get out of the murky muck of the 19th century, and past the ruinous remains of the early 20th, I will be sure to read more books like this one.

    I did not emphasize, and should have, the appealing humane openness and optimism of Thompson's novel.

  5. the appealing humane openness and optimism of Thompson's novel

    This is so often the thing with the contemporary American novelists doing the Way We Live Now, 2011 thing, I think—or at least with the good ones, or at least with the ones I like. It's nice. I've read a couple along these lines lately and they make me feel like living in the world is not quite impossible.

  6. I'm leafing through the book again. There's a chapter with a kid bringing home his college girlfriend (on the hippie side) for the first time. Everyone is desperately uncomfortable. It's all well described and maneuvered, but it is fair to wonder if there is anything more to the chapter or writing than getting the little things right. Then Thompson lays a punchline on me that should make me howl and hoot, just a little.

    So that's a good one. The Vietman vet is up next. He ends up telling a story about 'Nam, and again I am thinking, this is fine but I have read plenty like it, but again Thompson jerks the rug out from under me right at the chapter's end again, and though I was expecting it now, on to her tricks, I still fell.

    There is a "nice" quality to the novel, but Thompson makes her characters earn it.

  7. I suggest Wuthering Expectations initiate its own list of "hideous AM radio hits"!

  8. The song at the center of the discussion is "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)" by Looking Glass, which would certainly occupy a place of honor on my own list.