May 2011

James Tate Hill

fiction

Toward You by Jim Krusoe

Jim Krusoe’s plots are as quirky, charming, and original as his voice, which is saying plenty on both counts. He has the skewed perspective of Picasso, the sad heart of Keats, and the straight-faced mischief of The Outer Limits. His debut novel, the melancholy adventure Iceland, follows a typewriter repairman with a faltering vital organ on an increasingly absurd, oddly credible search for true love. Rather than questioning the route of the strange journey, originating with casual sex beside a swimming pool where organs are harvested, the reader smiles at the surprises, for the seemingly random journey does follow an emotional map.

In his second novel, 2008’s Girl Factory, a frozen yogurt shop employee stumbles upon naked women in the basement, all encased in glass, preserving themselves in nutrient-rich yogurt. Foul play makes the girls the clerk’s responsibility, and entertaining dilemmas abound. Most recently, Krusoe’s Erased explores the (apparently) blurry line between life and death as a man receives postcards from his dead mother and endeavors to track her down. If Girl Factory is a little more frantic than Iceland, Erased is a return to the thematic terrain of loss, but both novels, in their own ways, build on and honor his unforgettable debut.

Krusoe’s latest, Toward You, is the third in his trilogy of short novels that explore mortality. All have been published by Tin House, who, between Girl Factory and Erased, Keith Lee Morris’s The Dart League King, Geoffrey Becker’s Hot Springs, and Tom Grimes’s Mentor, to name only a few, is looking more and more like the West Coast’s answer to Algonquin. Which makes the disappointment of Toward You all the more surprising.

The least melancholy and least picaresque of Krusoe’s novels, Toward You begins promisingly with the death of a rabid dog named Bob. The novel’s narrator, also named Bob, has never seen the dog before, but tries his best to save his namesake before burying him in the backyard. Not long afterward, a knock on the door introduces Bob’s former girlfriend Yvonne (the narrator’s ex-girlfriend, not the dog’s) looking for a dog that has bitten her daughter Dee Dee. Over slices of cake, the couple reminisce about their time together at the Institute for Mind/Body Research, where Yvonne aspired to be a poet and Bob first hatched his plans to build a device to communicate with the dead.

Fans of Krusoe’s work are familiar with his unique pacing, in which a single moment can span paragraphs and years might flit by in half a sentence, and the slower moments are contemplative and necessary. In Toward You, however, the narrative frequently halts for digressive conversations and overly expository explanations for Bob’s actions. Too much momentum is lost, for example, to asides about television programs and idle chitchat with a policeman about the burgeoning writing careers of his colleagues.

Steadman, the policeman in question, does figure prominently in the novel, and although he’s amiable enough to spend time with -- Krusoe is incapable of creating dull characters -- the ways he intersects with Bob’s life feel more accidental, more indirect, than they should. The opposite can be said of Dennis, the menacing, mournful fellow looking for his dead dog, whose periodic appearances on Bob’s doorstep lead no further than the backyard. Each is a relevant contributor to the story, and Krusoe is enough of a pro to tie his strands together by the end. But the biggest, most crucial, and least satisfying strand belongs to Yvonne and her daughter.

Toward You alternates between Bob’s chapter’s and those belonging to a narrator we soon find out is Dee Dee. Not long after the search for the dog that bit her leads Dee Dee and her mother to Bob, Dee Dee dies from her dog bite. Her chapters are narrated from the great beyond, a purgatorial state that bears an unfortunate resemblance to The Lovely Bones. Unlike Bones, however, Dee Dee isn’t looking down on the world she’s left, or striving toward a new one; she’s simply a dead girl who misses her mother, trapped and confused by the nondescript purgatory she now inhabits.

As for her mother, Yvonne remains an ancillary character. Bob continues to pine for her, as he did in their years apart, but his pining, after the first third of the novel, becomes unfocused, and his daydreaming of a life with her doesn’t dramatically influence his actions. Even when Yvonne becomes romantically involved with one of the other aforementioned characters, Bob’s jealousy is too passive to make a difference.

Nor does Bob’s fixation on the communicator, the novel’s central conceit, seem to come from a place of passion, or even emotion. In Iceland, the central conflicts of the narrator’s illness and his search for love are deeply felt needs, lending the journey emotional gravity. The same is true of Erased, whose narrative is fueled emotionally by the involvement of a deceased mother. What’s missing in Toward You is an emotional underpinning to the story, something to render Bob’s invention and desire for Yvonne more than idle pursuits.

The reader trusts the sections from Dee Dee’s purgatorial point of view will collide with Bob’s, but despite an earnest attempt to unite them in the final pages, the intersection is abrupt and far too late. The ending, dramatic and lyrical, is like nothing that precedes it in the novel. Taken by itself, one can find beauty in the language  of the overwrought finale, as one can enjoy Krusoe’s characters, wit, and playfulness at various points in the book. Taken together, however, these elements simply don’t coalesce in Toward You the way they do in Krusoe’s best work, which, excluding this latest, is all of it.

Toward You by Jim Krusoe
Tin House
ISBN: 0982569114
230 Pages