By Paul Harding
Random House 978-9400069439
Normally it’s very bad form to give away the plot of a book, but Enon isn’t a plot-driven book, so here it is: Charlie Crosby, his wife, and his daughter are living a humble but happy life along the shores of Lake Enon. One day a car strikes his bike-riding daughter, Kate, she dies, and Crosby’s dreams pop like soap bubbles. He loses his wife and his grasp on reality. At some point he gets a little bit better. That’s it.
In the hands of a lesser writer, Enon (none spelled backwards) would be the sort of book you’d toss aside after you slogged through 50 pages and concluded that the plot wasn’t going anywhere. Paul Harding is not just any writer, though; one of the best ways to describe Enon is to call it a beautifully written bad book. Because the plot is far too thin to sustain a 212-page novel, Harding plumbs the depths of Charlie’s memories, impressions, depression, and fantasies. But it’s not even accurate to call this an interior novel; Harding’s poetic descriptions of Enon, the marsh, the cemetery, the lake, and other such externals are, if anything, even more brightly illumined than Charlie’s despair. (Enon is patterned on Massachusetts North Shore towns such as Georgetown, where Harding resides.)
Those who’ve read Harding’s 2010 Pulitzer-winning debut novel Tinkers will recognize Charlie as the grandson of that book’s narrator, George Washington Crosby. You will also see him as a chip of the block one generation removed: a man with such heightened senses and powers of observation that he can’t focus well enough to be much more than minimally competent in all things mundane (like school, work, home repairs, or being a husband). He was, however, spectacularly good at being a father.
Harding is a terrific writer. Alas, this does not make him a great storyteller. I don’t wish to sound unsympathetic to the set-up. I can’t imagine what could be more horrifying for a parent to lose a 13-year-old like Kate–on the cusp of adolescence, whip smart, funny, coltishly cute, and kind. Harding does a masterful job of showing Charlie’s deep slide. Since Charlie is only tangentially connected to routine in the first place, Kate’s death jump-starts a quick getaway from reality. Or is it an excuse? Is it simply easier to exist as an addled bum and only live in memories and fantasies of Kate? I’m sure it would be hard for anyone to pick up the pieces, but after a while it’s hard to sustain empathy for Charlie. He, in effect, becomes a plebeian Howard Hughes, but without the romance and myth associated with the latter's slobbery.
Charlie is totally fixated on Kate and her death, but the constant reminder of this eventually wears on readers the same way that a constant whiner begins to grate. Harding employs an episodic structure rather than a conventional narrative, but it’s not clear what Harding wants us to do other than feel bad for Charlie’s loss. We get the fact that Charlie’s paralyzed by grief–pretty early on, in fact. This leaves us with an endless array of episodes that are repetitive and substantively indistinct, even when surface specifics differ. We marvel over Harding’s prose, but it’s simply not enough. Perhaps this would have made a better novella; by page 100 I found myself skimming for lyricism rather than resolution. When the later comes, it feels implausibly abrupt and contrived. Is this the classic sophomore slump? That may be too harsh, but one hopes that Harding spends more time plotting his next novel; his elegant word baubles deserve to hang from tall redwoods, not spindly scrub pines.