Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Review: From Away

A couple of weeks ago, someone I follow on Twitter was asking for book recommendations. I went to my go-to title: The Full Catastrophe by David Carkeet.

I have no idea why I picked it off the shelf of the Village Green bookstore in Rochester lo these many, many years ago, but I have never regretted it, and have read it many times since. I've also read Carkeet's other novels: Double Negative, a mystery set before The Full Catastrophe with his linguist hero, Jeremy Cook; The Error of our Ways, a follow-up with Jeremy that I didn't like as well; I Been There Before, a fantastical novel about the miraculous return of Mark Twain with Halley's Comet; and The Greatest Slump of All Time, which I confess I don't remember.

All this to say that when I recommended The Full Catastrophe, I asked myself, so what has ol' David Carkeet been up to? And what do you know: a new book of his had just been published in March 2010. That would be From Away which I used as my teaser yesterday.

A new book by David Carkeet! What joy was mine! The first problem was finding it. The library didn't have it in the system, so I broke down while traveling and bought it. I went to the novel section; they said it was in new mysteries. I went to new mysteries; it was in new novels. I snatched up the only copy they had and scurried away with it.

It did not disappoint. Carkeet draws believably peculiar characters better than anyone I know. There's a particular kind of Carkeet character: very bright, but with limited and self-conscious social skills. His characters are always observing themselves, but they don't seem egomanical so much as ill-at-ease in the world without understanding why. I like reading about them and I root for them, but I tend to be glad not to know them personally.

The social inept in this case is named Dennis Braintree who writes for a model train magazine. As you might imagine, he doesn't do this...well, let's just say "normally." Instead, he tries to "enter the scene," asking modelers for the back stories of all the figures in the layouts. His boss complains, "These are little plastic people, Denny. Did you really ask him how long the switchman had been married?" That's the kind of obsessive strangeness we're dealing with.

After a car accident which opens the novel, Denny gets stuck in Montpelier, Vermont, becomes implicated in a murder, assumes the identity of a local named Homer, and bluffs his way through the novel, trying to figure out who done it. Sort of. It's not a typical mystery; Denny's efforts seem half-hearted at best. The pleasure in the book is watching this socially inept guy impersonate a laconic New Englander and wondering how long this can go on.

He's perfectly confident he can carry it off despite all evidence to the contrary. I loved this passage as he starts his impersonation:

Everything was falling into place. What was acting but an extended lie, and what better liar was there than Dennis Braintree? Only once had he been caught in a lie, a little over a year ago. He had been at the zoo, and a small bird had flown low right at his face and then veered away at the last minute. Denny's mouth had been open at the time because he was imitating the face a chimp had just made at him, and it occurred to him that the bird could easily have flown into his mouth. That thought became the account he delivered later, at a meeting of the church mission committee: "A bird flew into my mouth at the zoo." The ladies responded with a mix of surprise and disgust. They made faces, and one made spitting sounds to eject the bird. But afterward, privately, one of them said to him, "That didn't really happen, did it?" As an experiment, he said, "No, it didn't." She said, "You're involved in the church because it's a welcoming institution, correct?" Again he agreed. "There are limits," she said.

You keep waiting for him to hit the limits throughout the novel. Somehow he never quite does. He continues to blunder about awkwardly, always trying to "enter the scene," always as an outsider, always trying to get the back story, imagining what it would look like as a model train layout. He never quite gets it, but it's fun watching him fumble.

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