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Lake Overturn

by Vestal McIntyre (Harper, 2009)

Once you have read Vestal McIntyre's Lake Overturn, you can open it anywhere and read with the greatest pleasure. You may recall how the episode that you've just dropped in on works out, but the well-turned insights that glisten in every sentence will be fresh: you can't possibly have carried them all away from a first reading.

Chuck realized that Lina thought he was going to offer her money. This hadn't occurred to him. Having never been poor, he had no concept of the terror of collection agencies or the humiliation of food stamps. He was barely aware that things like these existed. Poor people, in his mind, simply lived in smaller houses. What he was going to offer was that Lina park in the garage next time. He didn't correct her, though. Savoring her anger, Chuck held her closer and felt the aching pulse of a returning erection. If he couldn't be that crass man who would offer her money, he could at least let her believe that he was.

You may be struck, the second time round, by the rich fabric that the author weaves out of imagination and observational prowess:

Enrique had always liked these two. He and April often sat together at Mass away from their mothers, playing tic-tac-toe on the bulletin. She had jagged teeth and a severe slant to her brow that masked her sweet nature, while Tommy had an appealing, if somewhat Muppet-ish, face — blue-eyed and shovel-jawed — under a curly blond mop. He had been gangly and inappropriate in grade school, often making strange bids for attention. Enrique remembered a time he turned his eyelids inside-out and chased the girls around, fluttering those pink, veiny lids. Tommy had now dropped these antics but still seemed to have the most tenuous control over the volume of his voice: he would bark the first words of a sentence, shyly mutter the next, and wrangle his voice into his service only when he was nearly done. Perhaps this was why he was silent now, smiling and shifting from foot to foot as April spoke.

Or you may stumble on a passage that you have not forgotten and will never forget, reconnecting with it as if it were Scripture.

In the silence that followed, Connie wondered if all children taught their parents how to treat them, as Gene had her. If so, then Connie had taught this woman to act always in her own best interest, as if there were no other option. She had allowed her mother to drop neat little gates between them, plotting out her own comfortable space, never considering how it might confine Connie and make her less free.

Lake Overturn is a very large novel, much larger than it is long. It has been compared by at least one novelist to Middlemarch, and although such comparisons usually work to the disadvantage of the newer book, Lake Overturn does indeed interlace the lives of different characters so deftly that it is hard to identify a central figure. As we follow a handful of people around their hometown, Eula, Idaho, in the winter of 1986-7, we find ourselves far too engaged in the small events of their lives to give much thought to big-picture concerns such as "plot." There is just enough dramatic structure to sustain a mild curiosity about how things will come out in the end, but the desire for resolution is muted by the greatest illusion known to literature: the sense — more of a conviction, really — that your new friends in Eula will go on living after the novel sets them down and restores them to their private lives. We want the story to end only for the characters we don't much care for.

Such as Fred Campbell, the school principal. We meet him very early and we say good-bye to him very late. At the start, we find him sitting at his desk,

sweating and wringing his hands. Then he stood and paced. This was ridiculous. How could he be so weak? He had to do this. It was his job. But when he imagined approaching Coop, patting his hand on the man's sloping shoulder and saying, "Coop, my friend, let's sit down. I have somethin' I wanna discuss with ya," he felt a chasm of horror open beneath him that he could fall into and become nothing. He wasn't man enough to be principal. Why had they hired him?

And, near the end,

With his hands bulging in the pockets of his chinos, Campbell left the academic buildings and strolled across the lawn and through the woodshop. The janitor had found cigarette butts behind the table saw last week, and Campbell was itching to catch the perps in the act. But the room was empty, and a thin film of sawdust muffled his footsteps. Then he passed through the garage. Ironic to remember that autumn afternoon when he had dreaded to come here and confront Coop about his beer purchases....

Why had Campbell feared people so? Once he achieved a single-minded vision of how the school would operate, everything fell into place, and tasks became pleasurable. Yes, Campbell felt he understood great men now. Joseph Smith, Ronald Reagan, and even (although he would never say so to the Rotary Club) Jesus Christ.

But the last word on Fred Campbell is delivered by Abby Hall, one of the leading characters in Lake Overturn and someone we care very much about. "The old Campbell would have let her be valedictorian, even though she hadn't completed her course load. He would have melted the moment she started crying in his office. But not the new Campbell. One day she'll be grateful, he thought." Not very likely. Abby's last word:

"Our principal, Fred Campbell, is an idiot," she said in a heightened voice, though he couldn't hear.

One of those men who discover that the secret of success is using whatever authority they possess to downscale everyone they're forced to deal with, Fred Campbell is instantly familiar, and yet he is distinctive enough for us to itch to find out just how familiar he is. The second greatest trick in literature is making readers want to find out more about characters whom they're sure that they already know, and Vestal McIntyre has it down better than any writer I can think of. Coaxing freshness from the illusion of familiarity is, on its face, an unattainable goal, but for Mr McIntyre, coaxing doesn't come into it: freshness gushes from his pages. And yet there is not a single aspect of Eulan life (aside from the Mormon thing, a geographical accident) that American readers would objectively want to read about. Everybody already knows about the dynamics of church groups and science fairs. But hardly anyone can talk about them as well as Vestal McIntyre, very much in a way that overcomes the inertia of your lack of interest.

It's because I'm not remotely as skilled as the author of Lake Overturn that I intend to forego the pleasures of trying to entertain you with his stories. The only way to back up my claim that Mr McIntyre makes that science fair about as thrilling as, say, Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious would be to copy out the scene, and even that wouldn't do because you'd have to know a lot about Enrique Cortez and his classmates, Gene and Miriam. The adventures of Wanda Cooper rival those of Moll Flanders, although Wanda has a warmer heart; but if I were to summarize her projects (so to speak), you might be inclined to find Wanda to be self-destructive and a perhaps somewhat vulgar. The wrong-side-of-the-tracks love of Jay Cortez for wealthy Liz Padgett is one of the oldest stories going, and it ends as such stories usually end, even here in the United States. But because the romance is Mr McIntyre's way of showing us the beating heart of taciturn and athletic Jay, as well as his way of showing us Liz's already burgeoning sentimentality for the town that she plans to leave right after graduation from high school, we follow its course as keenly as we would that of people we knew. There is no way to bottle any of this for review purposes. Lake Overturn is a novel that will be much more readily talked about in retrospect, by readers who have come to love it. Instead of reviews, there will be what used to be called "appreciations."

And yet I cannot close without a word or two about Enrique, perhaps the most appealing twelve year-old that I have met between the covers of a book. The son of a vagrant father and a hard-working domestic servant, and the younger brother of an aggressively masculine high-school basketball star, Enrique is on the verge of understanding his budding homosexuality, and the trouble that it will get him into if he yields to what is still something less than desire, and more like a curiosity that derives most of its power from prohibition. For the most part, Enrique is a bright kid who knows his world very well. This insures him against naivetι, because when he passes the limits of familiarity, he does not make assumptions. He is already proficient at giving teachers what they seem to want, but schoolwork bores him. He latches on to the promise of a national science fair largely because it suggests the possibility of escape from Eula, which also bores him (when it does not annoy him). Mr McIntyre takes Enrique's boredom as understood; Enrique has not allowed it to abscess into an displeasure or dislike. He stays busy making plans.

Since entering junior high school only two weeks earlier, Enrique had been wondering what he would do to keep from falling between the cracks. He was too short and chubby for sports, and until high school there would be no school play in which to act. His mom couldn't afford art lessons or piano or gymnastics, so he never asked, and being first altar boy was something to be hidden rather than flaunted. He did have a good singing voice. Once he sang the Doxology a capella at Mass, and some old lady had told Father Moore afterward that it made her think there should be a boys' choir. But now an eighth-grade girl had sung a Christian Rock song at assembly, and even if Enrique mustered the nerve to perform at school, it would now seem like he was copying her. But this — a science fair! Gene was super smart, especially when it came to science, but shrank in front of groups, and was generally awkward and abrupt. Speaking was Enrique's talent. Together they could win.

But before the school year is over, Enrique has outgrown the schoolboy triumphs of science fairs; on a bicycle that his brother Jay gives him, he takes to riding — a kind of flying, as he feels it — around Eula, seeing what's what, and cruising in ever smaller circles around the bus station's men's room. The ease with which the boy shuffles off interests that are too small for him is quite brilliantly captured; the momentary puzzlement of lost interest is made palpable on the page.

Lake Overturn is broken up into sections of various length that take their titles from the steps of the scientific method, at least as it is taught in schools. Whether some extra significance might be teased out the text by reading each section in terms suggested by its heading, I can't say. Further subdivided into numbered chapters, Lake Overturn elementally consists of episodes that center on one or another of the major characters. Chapter 14, chosen at random, consists of twelve pages told from the point of view of Connie Anderson, the mother of Enrique's Aspie science-fair partner Gene; two pages about Wanda Cooper, and four pages about Jay Cortez and his mother. In Chapter 22, to be sure, Enrique subjects Gene to a terrible experiment, but the episode, even though it is one of the quietest in the book, hardly needs to be signaled. I am not sure that the chapter breaks ultimately serve any purpose but convenience, and my attempt to see the novel as a hypothesis first searched for and then tested was swamped by a sense of the narrative's natural progression through the seasons, from autumn to spring — America's working time.

I raise this issue by way of confessing that I do not quite understand the novel's title. "Lake Overturn" is the name, not of a body of water, but of a lethal event that can occur in deep crater lakes. A drop in the temperature of water on the surface of such a lake can cause lethal carbon gases, normally trapped at the bottom, to bubble up, quietly and stainlessly killing all animal life. If there is a parallel to this deadly inversion in Lake Overturn, I did not see it. If there are gases at the bottom of Eula's Lake Overlook, they're life-giving, not toxic. (And as Enrique learns to his chagrin, they couldn't be lurking in the depths of what turns out to be a very shallow lake.) Mr McIntyre has captured a town that, while it may not be a hospitable environment for curious and imaginaginative types such as Liz Padgett (or Vestal McIntyre himself), is as good a place for growing up as any, and a site of overall contentment for most of its inhabitants. The idea of interpreting the good people of Eula as zombies, as would have been de rigueur fifty or sixty years ago, seems monstrously wrong-headed, and thoroughly at odds with the gentle smile of Mr McIntyre's comedy. I look forward to having the meaning of the title and the section headings explained to me. But I am certainly not going to keep this immensely pleasurable book to myself until I've figured it out for myself. (May 2009)

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