The Floodmakers by Mylene Dressler
The family drama has always been perfect fodder for the novel and it will continue to supply plots for many years to come. That said, with such a common storyline, it’s got to be a talented author who employs this as the backbone of her story. Without picturesque descriptions, revealing dialogue, and a desire to get the reader so fully involved in the characters’ lives that they begin to worry about them even after they’ve closed the covers of the book, the novel is sure to be a failure.
"Failure" may be too harsh of a word to describe Mylene Dressler’s The Floodmakers, but literary achievement in the area of the family drama certainly doesn’t fit the bill, either. Spanning a weekend, the story revolves around Harry Buelle, the narrator, and his family consisting of father, step-mother, sister, and brother-in-law. Called by their step-mother, the children return home to visit their ailing father for what seems will be one last weekend together. Through all this is a bird, found injured in the yard, that their father insists on carrying inside and nursing back to health. This is against his family’s desires, which lends itself to comical scenes of the bird in the bathroom and the setup of the father as a man intent upon carrying out his wishes.
Instead of letting such scenes describe the members of his family, the narrator has a tendency to blurt out these facts, preventing the reader from forming their own opinions of the characters and making for a stilted exposition. Statements such as, “We have a history of strange accidents in my family,” is all well and good to know, but without any sort of telling of those accidents the statement lays there, lifeless. It’s just too obvious. “None of us have any trouble acting irritated. Exasperated. Dismayed. Offended. Annoyed,” Harry goes on to expound. “We like to be smart-asses, and occasionally to get foulmouthed –- if the occasion demands… the main thing is always to stay in control. Even in the middle of what might be, of what any other person might be reasonable to think of as an actual drama.” This could describe any number of families, but, more importantly, this is something we could have learned from the characters themselves. Instead, it was handed over, leaving us with very little thinking to do.
Harry’s homosexuality provides an easy mark of paternal disapproval. In combination with their identical career choices -– playwrights -– the necessary father/son tug of war is set. Not only does Harry’s father criticize his lifestyle, he doesn’t respect his son’s work because it differs so much from his own. At one instance he is beleaguering Harry for refusing to be introduced to influential industry members and at another he goes so far to ridicule his son’s sexuality as to imitate a lisp. While this relationship remains over-exposed, that of Harry’s sister and brother-in-law, Sarah and Paul, is never quite explained. Sarah’s epilepsy is known to the reader, but we don’t learn what, if anything, is wrong with Paul. Whether he’s mildly retarded or autistic is never known because all the author reveals is that the rest of the family reacts to him with some distance, treating him as if he were a puppy or an over-excited child they have no choice but to deal with. Why does the family resent his marriage to Sarah? This, among others, is a question Dressler could have answered through the characters’ actions and dialogue, but instead failed to address at all.
Where, exactly, the injured bird places in all of this is a further misstep. Whether it’s a metaphor for the father’s health or symbolic of the family’s well-being, it’s meaning falls flat as its connection to each character is far too obvious. And, throughout the story is the mentioning of “Timothy,” an assumed ex-boyfriend of Harry who never fully becomes a character, instead relegated to two or three miniscule flashback moments that make his presence extraneous and indicative of nothing. The dialogue that does exist doesn’t seem real, but contrived to lead the story to a certain point. This point stems from Sarah’s work as a filmmaker and her return home as a means of finishing a documentary on their father’s career. This one motivation drives the story to its eventual climax, soap-operatic in fashion. The finale is a study in melodrama, rife with revealed family secrets, longed for acceptance, incest, and meditated suicide that seem like the ending to a bad movie -– one in which I want my $9.50 back because I can’t believe the writer copped out and took the story where it went.
At just under two hundred pages, it seems as if the author had a page limit to stay under, cutting any sort of not entirely necessary expansion on the characters’ background due to that restraint. This sort of family melodrama has become generic – The Floodmakers has the drama of all the others, but with none of the great writing that makes them indispensable. Dressler tries too hard to categorize the family and make it easy for the reader to understand them, when it shouldn’t always be so easy. Even with all of this, I’m not quite sure what it is that’s missing from the text, just that something is and when that thing is present you don’t notice it. You only notice its absence. The finished product seems…well…unfinished, leaving the reader feeling like they missed out on something that could have been really good. In all, the story isn’t bad. It isn’t a failure. It just isn’t great. But not great is never really what you want your end product to be.
The Floodmakers by Mylene Dressler
G.P. Putnam’s Sons