Dear Thad Ziolkowski:
People in Kansas don’t call their porches “stoops.” And I’m pretty sure that no one in Wichita has ever had to wait in line outside to be admitted to a restaurant at 8:30 pm. And the next time you talk to the good people at Europa Editions, you might want to mention that it’s time to fire the copy editor.
I wanted really badly to like this book, and I did like many components of it, but its inconsistencies and rookie mistakes drove me thoroughly to distraction and made me lose respect for Tonga Books’ Europa Editions, which I’ve always loved in the past. What I felt I was reading was not a polished novel but a promising first draft, pulsing with energy and rich, flawed, profoundly human characters but also marred with inconsistencies and errors. And I just have no patience with that kind of lack of professionalism.
But first: its strengths. Every single character in this novel, including those who only make very brief appearances, is beautifully drawn. The family depicted in this novel is a real family. I could almost smell them. Protagonist Lewis is a recent graduate of Columbia University whose primary struggle is to reconcile the two disparate sides of his divorced family. His mother, Abby, lives in Wichita, where she and one of her boyfriends, Bishop, have just founded a New Age storm chasing company called Grateful Gaia. Abby, Bishop (who lives in a tent in the yard), and Abby’s other boyfriend Donald (who lives in the house with her) make up a polyamorous, drug-doing, drug-making nuclear family that survives on a variety of shady money-making endeavors and on the profits of a “feminist Ponzi scheme” (Lewis’ term) that Abby directs.
(Digression: Don’t you think a feminist Ponzi scheme should be called a FONZIE scheme? I’m just saying.)
Abby raised Lewis – first in Texas and then in Wichita – until halfway through his junior year in high school, when he accepted an offer from his father, Virgil, to attend a private school in New York City and then attend Columbia, where Virgil is a professor, on a tuition waiver as a faculty child. Virgil’s family – parents Cyrus and Gerty, brother Bruno, twin niece and nephew Izzy and Eckhart – is academic in ways that tend toward hyperbolic extremes; they remind me of a twenty-first century version of the Van Doren family as they’re depicted in the movie Quiz Show. Lewis’s initiation into his father’s family includes not only prep school and Columbia but also trips to Europe, time spent with his grandparents in their Cambridge, MA home, and the expectation that Lewis himself will become a professor. When he graduates and does not enter a Ph.D program, his father’s family hounds him with letters and emails of condemnation, filled with the unstated suggestion that he will be cast out of the family if he doesn’t relent. A nice touch: Ziolkowski pairs this conflict with a second one, in which Lewis is also being hounded by his father and grandmother because he did not send a thank-you note for a gift he received from his grandfather over a year before. If anything, his family treats this low-level breach of etiquette as more egregious than Lewis’s choice not to pursue an academic career – which, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t such a terrible gaffe in itself – and the effect of his family’s reaction to these two choices effectively characterize them as painfully petty.
Lewis’ younger brother Seth (who is NOT an alligator – reading this novel right after Swamplandia! was rather confusing) has also just returned to Abby’s house at the beginning of this novel. Seth is all nervous energy – he has the combination of intelligence, social awkwardness, desire to shock, and tendency toward risk taking that characterizes bipolar disorder, and when Lewis first arrives at his mother’s house he finds Seth and several friends in the kitchen surrounded by a swirl of verbal chaos and erratic movement. Seth’s friends – wheelchair-bound, Tolkien-reading Stacy; expelled-from-a polygamist-compound, pothead Cody – and psychiatrist, Harry, who seems also to have become a family friend, are all expertly drawn, in spite of the fact that they are hardly major characters. In this initial scene, Seth’s behavior foreshadows the novel’s eventual use of tornadoes as symbols of beautiful destruction.
Thanks to The Wizard of Oz, tornadoes are associated with Kansas in the popular imagination, and along with tornadoes come other references: lacking a heart, lacking a brain, lacking courage; discovering that the powerful wizard is really just a little man behind a curtain; the refrain There’s no place like home. This novel’s allusions to Oz are extremely subtle, but Ziolkowski does borrow the idea of the tornado as a transformative force. Some of Ziolkowski’s best writing appears in the scene in which Grateful Gaia finally gets a customer and goes on a storm chase: “Wisps of smoke or is it earth are rising snakily into the air, two, three of them. Lewis thinks it must be from a lightning strike, fire in the field. Then the tendrils or snakes of smoke rise in sheets and grow larger, forming a rough circle like enormous ghosts in a ring dance, Sioux warriors risen on the prairie. Now they reach up to join tatters of clouds from the bottom of the storm, helically intertwining. Then it’s simply there, out of nowhere, this long stout elephant trunk or length of intestine” (219). Later, the tornado is “more like a water tower now, thick, bluish-white, cocked to one side, phallic” (220). For Bishop and Abby this is a religious experience – Bishop also announces that the tornado makes him “hot” (220). For Abby, it’s “neither earth nor sky, it’s some new union!” (220). For Drew, the tourist who has hired Grateful Gaia, the tornado is just the adventure he has paid for. For Lewis, it is more drama to watch from a distance, never participating or commiting. For Seth, it’s an opportunity to do what he has wanted to do for years: die.
Ziolkowski makes effective use of doubling in this novel. As brothers, Seth and Lewis are complimentary opposites: Lewis the perennially safe one and Seth the one who dives headfirst into danger. (Lewis even mentions several times feeling that he and Abby are parenting Seth together.) Seth represents the dangerous side of Lewis’ choice to align himself with his mother rather than his father. Abby courts chaos but is not herself chaotic – it is Seth who embodies this excess of disorder. Furthermore, Abby’s yard – in which Bishop lives in a tent – is overgrown with weeds and regularly frowned at by the Baptist minister who lives next door. Throughout the novel, whenever Lewis is frustrated by the chaos of his mother’s household, he wants to go outside and hack at the leaves with a machete: “There’s a species of tough, sinewy weed he has to seize like hair and hack away at before he can sever it. Viscous white sap oozes down the stumps and into the earth… There’s a stout-stalked, sinewy plant the color of rhubarb that crumples in his hand like a windpipe when he tries to snap it off, smears his fingers with wet fiber. Ants, beetles, crickets, spiders and insects he can’t name flee as before a fire. Bits of plant gore cling to his sweat-soaked T-shirt. Pausing to catch his breath, he closes his eyes, hears himself murmur I’m sorry” (202). When he visits his grandparents in Cambridge, there is a parallel scene in which he is invited into his grandmother’s garden for “career counseling”: while they discuss his future, they prune tomatoes together. His grandmother says, “You’re being dragged down. You must decide who’s side you’re on, Lewis, that of the weeds or that of the tomatoes.”
Great line. But it’s the apostrophe error that really gives it its brilliance, don’t you think? But more on that later.
A garden is never just a garden. A garden is always all tied up in legends of Eden – with the idea of a perfect world from which humans were evicted because of their hubris and ingratitude AND with the ongoing tradition of man’s struggles to control his environment. Lewis’ father’s family, with their Ph.D’s and their European tours and their perfect tomatoes, are suggestive of Cain the farmer, who settled and populated the earth and suffered and tilled his brother’s blood into the soil. Abby and Seth and Grateful Gaia are more like Abel, the shepherd who roamed the earth, caring for its creatures without digging into its crust to plow fields and build structures. They coexist with weeds and tornadoes without trying to subdue them. And both mythology and history suggest that the Cains of the world usually end up killing the Abels, or at least creating their spiritual death through excessive domination and control.
This novel repeatedly asks the question what does it mean to be appropriately grateful? Lewis’ family thinks he is ungrateful for taking the expensive education they gave him and then rejecting the academic career for which it prepared him. Their furor over his failure to send a thank-you note for a gift just helps to highlight this question of gratitude. Abby, on the other hand, fulminates at an out-of-control Seth, “Insane is a lack of gratitude for life; insane is arrogance and recklessness and impiety. That’s what makes you ‘a danger to yourself and others,’ Seth” (196). To what degree is gratitude a form of obedience – of succumbing to the expectation that we should want the same things that our benefactors want? Lewis’ father and his family want his obedience in payment for the gifts they have given him. His mother, on the other hand, opens her home to all kinds of weirdos and crazies, embraces polyamory (which literally means “the love of many,” and if “love” is defined as agape or caritas instead of only as eros, polyamory becomes much less about one character’s lifestyle choice and more about the theme of unconditional love that is central to the novel), and names her storm-chasing company Grateful Gaia – in other words, the attitude toward storms that she wants to impart to her clients is one of gratitude: she is grateful for the fact that we live in a world that is periodically taken over by the chaotic beauty of a tornado. Abby is also generous in ways that her deep-pocketed ex-husband is not: she takes in the homeless and gives large sums of money away to friends in what may or may not be a Ponzi scheme, while Virgil can barely tolerate the presence of his tempestuous younger son or of the academically passive Lewis.
So to begin to wrap up: this is a novel of great wisdom and beauty. It is well structured and uses the imagery of the natural world extremely well for symbolic ends. But this is also the time when I begin to berate its author for his carelessness as if he were a sophomore who just wrote his essay in fifteen minutes while also playing Angry Birds. Because this novel is very poorly edited. Most of the time I read at a rate of about 11-12 books a month, and it’s not uncommon that I encounter an error or inconsistency in a book. They always annoy me, but I can’t remember the last time that I read a book from a reputable press (or from any press, for that matter) that was riddled with as many errors as this one is. Among the proper names that are misspelled are Arby’s (Arbie’s ), Bleecker Street (“Bleeker Street” ), and Shirley MacLaine (“Shirley McClain” ). Seth is arrested by the “sherrif” (180), and Lewis finds a machete in a “wrack of tools” (200). Prepositions are misplaced and omitted. The dollar amount that is exchanged as part of the feminist Ponzi scheme is usually listed as five thousand dollars – except on page 187, where it is listed as five hundred. Verbs that should be indicative are given in the present participle form. A minor character’s name is variously spelled “Jesse” and “Jessie.” Lewis remembers taking trips with his prep school football team to away games at a variety of New England prep schools, including “Kingsley-Oxford” (143) – and while I know that it is well within an author’s right to give a school a fictional name, Ziolkowski names half a dozen or so other real-world New England and New York prep schools, so I am assuming he meant to refer to Kingswood-Oxford School in West Harford, CT. This is a small error that many readers wouldn’t catch, sure – except for the thousands upon thousands of us who either attended or work in the fabulously inbred world of New England prep schools.
But that is beside the point, really. Those of us who aspire to create art at high levels must be concerned with the absolute perfection of the work we create. Of course I do not think it is important to spell words correctly in our first drafts, and of course I assign much of the blame for this sloppy final product to the copy editors at Europa Editions, whose entire purpose in life is the identification and correction of errors. Are there errors in my posts on this blog? Sure, there are probably a few – but I continually reread my posts and correct errors when I find them in addition to proofreading each entry before posting it originally, and if I ever decided to submit an essay from this blog for formal publication I would make damn sure the manuscript was error-free. Ziolkowski’s talent is obviously prodigious – but his willingness (and, yes, Europa Editions’ willingness too) to allow such a sloppy manuscript to bear his name seems like a form of – well – ingratitude for the gift of this wonderful talent.
Being a novelist is like being a dead Mormon: You are the god of your own little world. And that may sound like it’s all fun and games, but there are responsibilities involved too. If you are writing about a place you don’t know well, there are ways to ask for help. Writers have access to research assistants and travel grants and search engines and libraries and grammar books and computer spell check functions, and presumably a manuscript goes through an editing process designed to root out inconsistencies and errors in language and subject matter. But at the end of the day, YOU HAVE TO GET IT RIGHT. Only the novelist is the god of his little planet – a position that comes with its set of perks (possible Nobel Prize; opportunity to spend the workday in one’s underwear), but it also requires the consistent and plausible creation and maintenance of that world. And yes, details matter.
Hey, Thad Ziolkowski: Good book. But next time, prune the fucking tomatoes, dude.