Tom Lake Charming, but a One-Trick Pony


Tom Lake (2023)

By Ann Patchett

Harper, 320 pages.





Public school teachers and parents will recognize these scenarios. A student sees you downtown is startled that you’re wearing jeans and sneakers. Do you remember when you assumed your parents had no lives before you came along? To be fair, it’s often hard to imagine someone outside of their customary roles.


That’s the central premise of Tom Lake, the latest novel from Ann Patchett, which is  riding high on best-seller lists. It centers on Joe and Lara Nelson, a happily married couple with three young adult children: Emily, Maisie, and Nell. Except for Emily, who wants to stay local, each will soon fly the proverbial coop. In the present they are together on the shores of Lake Michigan, where the Nelsons tend their fruit orchards. Picking a cherry crop is so labor intensive that the daughters wile away the hours by picking Lara’s brain about her years before she married. They know bits and pieces, including that she once dated Peter Duke, an actor who became famous and won an Oscar. In her sullen teen years, Emily imagined that Peter was her real father and would show up to take her away from the farm. Irony alert: Now she’s engaged to the proverbial boy next door and wants to run the orchard when her parents retire. Maisie has her eyes set on becoming a veterinarian and Nell thinks she might take up acting.


A story within a story is not exactly the most original premise in literature, but Patchett has written a charming PG-13 novel. Tom Lake riffs off Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. When she was a misunderstood high school kid in Durham, New Hampshire, bucked up by her grandmother Nell, Lara played Emily in Our Town and did so again in college. She was so good that she caught the eye of an avuncular Hollywood agent who sent her to Los Angeles to make a movie. Quite a few completed movies either never get released, or rest in limbo until financing, post production, and distribution issues are ironed out. In the lull, Lara is sent to New York to try out for a Spalding Gray production of Our Town. She did not get the part, so her agent suggested she do summer stock to develop her chops.


The novel’s namesake body of water is Tom Lake, Michigan, home to a venerable stage reminiscent of summer theatre in the Berkshires. As it happens, they are doing Our Town and their Emily has just left the cast. Twenty-four-year-old Lara steps in and wows the cast. Before the day is out, she’s sleeping with Peter Duke, four years her elder and  a privileged carefree hunk. Lara recounts her past in pieces and dribbles as she ponders what to confess. Her daughters have seen her film and would not be shocked about sex, but maybe there are parts of her past that Lara prefers to remain private.


Legends abound of summer stock drama and trauma that’s not on the stage. The Tom Lake cast is no exception. It was certainly an interesting group: Lara’s black understudy and friend Pallace; Albert, an older actor whom everyone called Uncle Wallace who is overly fond of the bottle; visits from Peter’s older brother Sebastian, a tennis pro; and a director whose Aunt Maisie and Uncle Ken run a cherry farm in Michigan. When part of the cast pays a visit to it, Peter likes it so much he wants to stay. There’s a Great Expectations twist to that trip, and later a break-a-leg moment.


In all, Lara had a life-altering summer, and a few subsequent hookups with Peter. But after returning to New York and realizing that Emily was the only role at which she excelled, Lara quit acting. She married Joe Nelson, had three daughters, and never looked back. Of course, her daughters doubt that she had no regrets, but it’s often hard for children to imagine anyone opting for a non-glamorous life. There are also revelations about Joe’s youthful digressions that bring matters into focus and a hint of hold-your-doubts equivocation.


Patchett is a gifted writer, but it must be said that Tom Lake is a one-trick pony, a musing on Our Town, which is itself a play within a play. Tom Lake is thus a skillfully written contrivance with many of Wilder’s characters reborn in Michigan. Score it high on the literary scale but middling for originality.    


Rob Weir


Wanderers: An All Too Believable Dystopia?


Wanderers (2019)

By Chuck Wendig

Del Rey, 800 pages





These days it is much easier to imagine human destruction than utopia. The Wanderer is a griping look at dystopia. Chuck Wendig published his novel in 2019, but it proved prescient. Can we imagine a contagion first made manifest in a distant locale that inexorably spreads? Check. Pandemic denial? Check. Paranoic politics? Check. A rogue AI program? Maybe! 


It opens in the American Heartlands when Shana’s 15-year-old younger sister Nessie becomes robotic and non-responsive. Attempts to take a blood sample fail because no needle can penetrate her. Nor does she speak, respond to others, or feel anything as she begins her barefoot trek toward some unknown destination. It’s as if she is sleepwalking, but can’t wake up. Before long she is joined by thirty-odd others. They relentlessly march and are dubbed “Walkers.”


The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has theories but no answers. Enter Benji Ray, an African American fired by the agency for falsifying data to prevent pork contamination. He is unofficially brought back into the fold by former mentor Martin Vargas–to the delight of several former colleagues–not because Vargas trusts him, but because Benji has been selected by Black Swan, an algorithm program (and perhaps more). When the CDC fails to detect an immediate cause, the Internet conspiracy machine kicks into high gear. Bio terrorists? Foreigners? A science experiment gone wrong? Attention-seeking fakes? The only thing known for certain is that attempts to impede the Walkers causes them to explode–literally.


As others succumb to the mystery ailment, still another crazed theory arises, a government conspiracy that adherents insist is what one might expect when a woman, Nora Hunt, is the President of the United States. That’s the official line of Fox News and red-meat Republicans who push for a military solution. The Walkers, though, are accompanied by Shepherds, human-shield friends and family of the afflicted, as well as potential caretakers should they wake up. As the Walkers’ numbers increase, Matthew Bird, an Indiana preacher, adds backwoods religion to the equation. Bird is an unknown until Ozark Stover, a survivalist/white supremacist, turns the reverend into a media sensation. Bird embraces his instant fame and dubs the Walkers the “Devil’s Pilgrims.” Stover is determined to obliterate the Walkers in a metaphorical showdown at the O.K. Corral. Time is not on the side of the CDC, as even President Hunt, who is getting clobbered in the polls, is willing to turn the matter over to Homeland Security if the contagion isn’t stopped. In essence, we have a battle between science and politics. Sound familiar? Check.


Wanderers is a nail-biting drama that riffs off contemporary history, including Trumpism. It is a long novel in part because Wendig interweaves personal stories. The Shepherds are joined by Marcy Reyes, a former cop whose life is a mess, but seems to draw energy and strength from the Walkers. They are also joined, for dubious reasons, by a cynical pop punk/hard rock musician, Shana has issues to resolve with her father, several love affairs blossom, Bird finds himself estranged from his wife and son, and Benji learns that the contagion predates the Walkers. Meanwhile, Stover begins to mobilize his militia, many of whom are anxious to discredit Hunt and the non-white team that dominates the investigation, including Sadie, Black Swan’s inventor. Time is literally running out. There are 1,024 Walkers, but for others the contagion is fatal and the end of the Anthropocene is a distinct possibility.


But what of Black Swan? What indeed. And why are the Walkers inexorably marching toward Ouray, Colorado, a played out mining town of fewer than a thousand people?  Is Black Swan the cause of the contagion, a solution, or something else entirely? Wendig’s complex narrative even veers toward the simulation hypothesis–a postulate that is both ancient and recent–that ponders whether human beings are inside a construct controlled by some external force. Wendig’s twist is to suggest connections to quantum entanglement, but mostly Wanderers is a tale of pandemonium, confirmation bias, and the myriad ways in which humans find it easier to scapegoat than cooperate.


Wendig owes debts to past apocalyptic novels such as Alas, Babylon; The Andromeda Strain; Cloud Atlas; The Dog Stars; Oryx and Crate; The Road; Station Eleven; and even Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. I suppose we must concede: Dystopia rules.


Rob Weir