Thursday, April 13, 2017

Book 72: The Fugitives

 "He asked her about her background and education, her hopes and dreams, and she was, like everyone else, a sucker for the hypnotic draw of her own hopes and dreams, and she was, like anyone who's benefited from a certain amount of luck and apparent self-knowledge, a sucker for the opportunity to appear unregretful about the ones she'd given up on." 

Dates read: July 23-25, 2016

Rating: 7/10 

It's easy to romanticize small-town life. The close-knit community, the cute little houses and shops, the feeling that bad things don't happen here. Even when you grow up in a small town and can't wait to get out into the world (*raises hand*), you can find yourself falling into that pattern of thinking. Speaking from my own experience, it's kind of two-sided: when you live in a city, you want the imagined coziness and comfort of a small town; when you live in a small town, you want the imagined opportunity and anonymity of the city. When you're unhappy with your life where you are, the allure of the opposite is even stronger.

The idea that you'd be an entirely different person if you just lived somewhere else is one that has a lot of instinctive appeal. And trying to run from who you are by changing your location is what drives the characters of Christopher Sorrentino's The Fugitives. Sandy Mulligan leaves Brooklyn in the wake of a nasty divorce and sets up shop in Cherry City, Michigan (a very thinly disguised Traverse City) to recover and finish his long-awaited next novel. But he's got a bad case of writer's block and his most literary activity is going to the library to watch a man called John Salteau tell Native American folktales. Salteau is also what brings Chicagoan reporter Kat Danhoff back to the area she grew up in...her long-lost best friend who never left home thinks Salteau might be a mobster in disguise and Kat can't resist a juicy story that might break her out of a boring professional beat. But eventually both Sandy and Kat find out what anyone who's ever moved knows: you can't escape your problems that way, because you're still yourself wherever you go.

Which isn't to say that anyone ever stops trying it. The themes of identity and the futility of trying to run away from it are strong and immediate: Sandy is a writer who can't write, and Kat is a Native American who does her best to avoid talking about her heritage. Sorrentino presents them both at first as flawed but relatable people: Sandy had an affair, but went back to his wife and went to couple's counseling to try to put it back together even if it ultimately failed, Kat cut ties with her formative years and the people in them to escape poverty and aimlessness. But as the book progresses, the layers are pulled back and the truth is uglier than it might seem: Sandy left his wife for his mistress for a time, he's deeply unconcerned about his ex-wife and their children, he blames his former mistress's husband for their affair as much as anyone. Kat married early to an older man and treated him with cruelty, she's emotionally withholding to her current husband, she's a serial adulterer herself. It fits with the way we get to know people in real life: we're presented with the story they like to tell about themselves, but over time the deeper stuff comes to the fore. For most people the deeper stuff isn't quite that dark, but it's the same kind of idea.

It's an intriguing literary device and makes us only slowly question the reliability of our narrators. Well, narrator, because only Sandy is written in the first person, but Kat's perspective isn't written much differently despite being in the third person. We're also invited to question their reliability when Sorrentino goes back and tells a story of their interaction from the perspective of the other (which is occasionally a little confusing but you get used to pretty quick).  Who's telling us the "real" version? Are either of them? The novel has a lot of merit, but it's ultimately frustrating because it felt like with more vigorous editing it could have been great. I'm generally unbothered by prose that tends toward the purple, but even I was raising my eyebrows at how often there were overwritten run-on sentences. But overall, it's an engaging character-driven read...if you enjoy books about bad people, anyways.

Tell me, blog friends...have you found it easy to "start over" if you've moved?

One year ago, I was reading: Dead Wake

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