Friday, November 4, 2016

About Grace

by Andrew Doerr

In his first novel, "About Grace," Anthony Doerr drags his protagonist, David Winkler, over a fair few hot coals: 25 years of exile as a dogsbody in a new hotel in St. Vincent in the Caribbean, a near-drowning experience, malnutrition, a clinically debilitating journey in a clapped-out Datsun across the vastness of America, an Alaskan winter in an unheated shed, gradual loss of eyesight, an alienated daughter he abandoned when she was a few months old. The comparisons with Lear are flickering and fugitive but inevitable. As Winkler himself thinks: "I have already been reduced. Leave me be." Why does Doerr inflict so much on this quiet, retreating hydrologist, a man obsessed with water and snow?

Winkler is no ordinary man. He sometimes dreams of things that, in his waking life, come true. As a boy, he dreams of a man coming out of a shop with a hatbox who will shortly be run over by a bus. In a few days, it happens. This life of prolepsis, with frequent illuminations of déjà vu, of "the vertigo of future aligning with the present," becomes his unraveling. He dreams of the woman with whom he is going to fall in love and the exactness of the circumstances as well. Before long, he is locked in an intense relationship with Sandy Sheeler, married to Herman Sheeler for more than 15 years. Sandy gets pregnant, leaves her husband and Anchorage with Winkler and sets up a new life with him in Cleveland. A few months after their daughter, Grace, is born, Winkler dreams of an imminent flood in which she will drown while he is trying to save her from the rising waters.

To avoid this fate, he escapes to St. Vincent, where he is rescued by a Chilean cook, Felix, and his wife, Soma, both exiles themselves from Chile's political violence and repression. For 25 years, which Doerr oddly manages to telescope so that it feels like a tenth of that time, Winkler lives on the island in a dilapidated shed, working as general factotum in an offshore restaurant. It is his friendship with Felix and Soma's little girl, Naaliyah, to whom he is friend, father figure, mentor (even academic referee when she decides to go to graduate school in the United States), that holds out the hope of salvation for him. In an act of redemption that allows Winkler to reorder the patterns of a past he has been expiating, he is released from the paralytic torpor afflicting his life. He returns to the United States to search for the wife and daughter he had abandoned.

Doerr traverses again the territory he had marked out in the stories of his lucent first book, the short-story collection "The Shell Collector" (2002): a rapture with nature expressed in prose that sings off the page; an infinitely subtle algebra of resonance and sympathy between minds, lives, objects, light, senses, weather; the majestic indifference of nature; the proper measure of man against natural forces. Doerr has a compulsion for observation and a passion for nature that borders on the religious.

But in "About Grace," this very strength snakes in on itself and becomes its perilous opposite; what was pitched so perfectly in the circumscribed space of a short story can appear overwrought, extended now over 400 pages -- a hothouse product, at times so swooningly in love with itself that it cannot resist yet another perfectly turned sentence (or four) on the miracle of the hexagonal structure of snow when more important action is pressing. Doerr's interest in nature is so obsessive that the whole equation of man in nature becomes heavily skewed in favor of the latter, producing fiction of rapturous beauty but of an oddly cold, uninvolving nature, as if it were embalmed in its own lustrous style.

A passage about Winkler seems to hold the key both to Doerr's philosophy and to the central weakness of the book. "All day . . . a sensitivity had been building within him: the slightest shift in light or air touched the backs of his eyes, reached membranes inside his nose. It was as if, like a human divining rod, he had been attuning to vapor as it gathered in the atmosphere, sensing it -- water rising in the xylem of trees, leaching out of stones, even the last unfrozen volumes, gargling deep beneath the forest in tangled, rocky aquifers -- all these waters rising through the air, accumulating in the clouds, stretching and binding, condensing and precipitating -- falling." This encapsulates the whole problem of a style that can sometimes stray into the self-consciously hypersensitive and precious as well as the problem of balance, the way the human is compulsively stunted in favor of the natural.

The human action and human interests, characterization, dialogue, all appear oddly attenuated when set within the frame of this overdeveloped poetic realism. Faced with the occasionally thin credibility of the characters, the exquisite avenues of light and cloud formations and ice crystals down which Doerr leads us prove disappointingly to be cul-de-sacs when we reach the inevitable destination.

Doerr reaches heroically toward the humanization of his novel with Winkler's return to the United States and his attempts to reinscribe himself into the notion and experience of family by tracing his daughter, Grace, now a young woman with a child of 6, Christopher.
Just as his relationship with Naaliyah, a proxy daughter, set him on the path to finding his real one, this time, too, Winkler is given hope, absolution and grace by Herman Sheeler and Christopher, in two relationships combining atonement and a rewriting of the past, a relearning of responsibility.

These are definitely the most moving sections of the book, but too much brightness dazzles and distracts, and the wall of luminous prose almost fences off the reader's heart, something Doerr clearly wants to sway. A writer as dizzyingly talented and as generous as Doerr should be confident enough to do away with some of the more blinding fireworks.

Thursday, November 3, 2016


Photograph by Andy Porter: Sunset at Copper Ridge
I reached the crest of Goat Ridge just as twilight was seeping through the forested slopes and valleys of the Goat Rocks Wilderness. I let the pack slip from my back to the ground and stood watching the sky going gold.

Gray-black cloud hanging there refusing to take on the pink hue that more distant clouds accepted gracefully. Darkness was now inking the sky.

I need to start a fire. Heat the dinner that I bought with my REI dividend.

If she were here we'd be eating by now, despite my vote for watching the sunset. "They'll be plenty of time for that."

But there wasn't. In the end, there wasn't time for exploring the world, traveling to exotic places, or even Epcot, or starting a family.

There was no time for other sunsets.

I forget about dinner and sit on a rock outcropping watching darkness descend. Taking time for regret.