By Amanda Goldblatt
“It’s a thing now, isn’t it?” one character asks another in Amanda Goldblatt’s debut novel, “Hard Mouth.” “For a young woman … to go on a great adventure?” If it wasn’t already a thing, Denny, Goldblatt’s 20-something protagonist, makes it one. She escapes into the woods from Maryland, where she’s lived with grinding dread for the decade since her beloved father’s first cancer diagnosis. He’s just announced that his cancer is back for the third time, and he’s decided to forgo even more grueling treatment, “to let everything take its course.” The news severs the delicate and illusory coherence of Denny’s suburban universe.
A low-level employee at a research lab, Denny tends fruit flies “until their use had been spent” and they die. Living so close to the inevitable, Denny is torn between “making a home” at the lab and the inescapable feeling that “in the end I could not adhere” to its inhumanity. The self-division can be traced back to the novel’s opening scene: a memory in which Denny is 8 and her father hypnotizes her into a kind of self-splitting that grants her the power of objectivity. To this day she still wonders whether she is “permanently split, striated — like a cooled, fat-topped broth.”
Pop’s refusal of treatment highlights the nauseous stasis of her own life, so she proceeds to impulsively upend it. She frees the flies, renounces all her material possessions (cellphone included) and rents a lakeside cabin so remote it can only be reached by seaplane. She tells no one where she’s going — not even her best friend, Ken. Her departure feels as inevitable as the flies’ demise: “I thought no more of endings or beginnings. I knew I would leave now.”
Although it’s seemingly solitude she seeks, once in the woods it turns out Denny is never alone. She’s got her imaginary friend, Gene, for one. And along the way she picks up a gun and a cat (which she names the Thing) — just the first in a series of the book’s unlikely, but oddly affecting, encounters with objects and creatures both human and not.
In both plot and style, “Hard Mouth” feints and dodges. Denny’s short-lived seclusion, spent mostly on scoutlike expeditions, feels like a missed opportunity for a cleansing nervous breakdown, a confrontation with the anxieties that drove her to the woods in the first place. In crafting this novel about avoidance, Goldblatt elicits from the reader the same frustration Denny feels with her stilted post-adolescence.
Denny’s journey will entertain readers to the extent that they appreciate Gene, a companion she conceived as a response to her father’s first diagnosis and “styled lightly … on a failed character actor from the early 20th century.” Or to the extent that they appreciate that the two men with whom Denny entangles herself are named Hill and Haw. Or colorful descriptions, as when Denny tells us that a lover’s testicles “played a vaudeville tune on my thighs.” Goldblatt’s language is playfully, poetically unstable: At the lab, “night or day I was alone and alone and only sometimes lonely”; her wooded enclave is a “big wetness.” Sometimes the narrative voice is almost too clever, but when Goldblatt’s on, she’s on, as in Denny’s comparison between music and grief: “It should have seemed poignant but abandonment and wanting what you can no longer have, what you had once — that’s rote stuff as far as pop and life are concerned.”
Despite her slippery quality, I enjoyed Denny’s company; I was pulled through the book by a desire to know more about her. What compels a woman to turn to the wilderness? What brings one, after a decade of caregiving, to exchange a terminal parent’s final vigil for the company of strangers? Goldblatt poses these questions with great assurance, and if the book’s denouement ultimately left me wanting more, that isn’t a bad thing, not at all.
Lisa Locascio is the author of “Open Me.”
By Amanda Goldblatt
245 pp. Counterpoint Press. Paper, $16.95.
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