Review by Oren Smilansky
At the center of Robert Boswell’s seventh novel, Tumbledown, is 33-year-old therapist James Candler, who seems to be doing a mediocre job at pursuing one version of the American dream. When we meet him, he’s acting the way we’d expect from a youngish Southern Californian who’s making decent money: racking up debts and making investments. He’s busy paying off an expensive car, mortgaging a fancy house in San Diego, just minutes away from La Jolla beach (though he rarely goes to the beach), and engaged to a woman he “hardly knows.” Luckily Candler is also doing good deeds, providing housing to his life-long best friend, Billy Atlas, and working at the Onyx Springs Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Center. There, he is also candidate for promotion, rumored to become the center’s “youngest director in its history.”
It is at the Onyx Center that we meet a large cast of characters—some, unfortunately, bordering on caricature— each diagnosed with at least one personality disorder. Principal among these are: Maura, a sixteen-year-old punk rocker with a high IQ and a low self-esteem; Mick, an ex all-American jock type whose identity has been all but obliterated by a bout with schizophrenia; and Karly, a “mildly mentally retarded” bombshell. When the gang’s supervisor, Les Crews, quits one day, aforementioned couch surfer and best friend of James Candler, Billy Atlas, scores the position of overseeing the gang. The unlikely group, all sharing the goal to regain their sanity and/or keep up the appearance of functioning and working human beings, gathers every day to package boxes of pantyhose. With skill, Boswell shuffles these characters around, often shifting perspectives. By choosing the factory as a central setting, he is able to smush together an eclectic group, and the conversations we get as are at times very amusing. It reads like an even more ridiculous version of The Breakfast Club.
Yet it’s hard to say who the main character is, or if there even is a main character in Tumbledown. Not that this is a necessarily requirement of a novel, but at times, it is my impression that the book suffers for this lack of focus. The narrative strays in many directions, often leaving certain portions unresolved, and drawing out threads that don’t lead anywhere. For all Boswell’s skill at assembling a variety of characters, I am not sure there is a pay off. Candler is the nucleus that connects all these damaged heads, but he is far from the most fascinating person we encounter. Unfortunately, it is his story we get in fullest detail, his arc that we follow till conclusion. Though James is successful, he is also aimless and inane. Throughout the book, Boswell tries to add complexity to Candler’s past to help us understand him and how he ended up where he is today (the year, by the way, is 2008). We learn that he grew up in the woods of Tucson, Arizona, to hippy, artist parents. His brother was an idiot savant art genius who committed suicide by jumping off the balcony of a hotel room. His family and upbringing sound far more interesting than the story of the present. It feels as though Boswell realized this, at some point during the act of writing, but that it would have taken too much work to rearrange.
Candler’s boredom with his own life—he doesn’t seem to have any hobbies outside of work—leads him to drinking bars after hours with his deadbeat best friend Billy Atlas. Luckily, naturally, he does meet a few people along the way. During one of his nights out, he is seduced by a woman we, the readers, have the fortune of getting to know on the first page. But James doesn’t remember her. She is a former client of James’. Her hair color has changed and so has her name (Elizabeth Ray, then Beth Wray, and now Lise). If Candler is the American dream in progress, Lise represents a failed attempt. Originally from the Midwest, Lise, when we meet her, is 27 years old, working at a clothing boutique. Ten years earlier, she had moved to LA, and was pursuing a career in acting. When she couldn’t make ends meet, she began prostituting. After getting caught for drug abuse, she was forced by the law to go to counseling, and that is where she met Candler, who was just beginning his career. She holds that he changed her life—though I was never convinced. Since then, she has obsessed over Candler, and at this point what she really is doing is stalking him. Boswell’s use of dramatic irony sets us up on some level to think that she will exact some form of revenge, but that never happens.
Again, if James were a more compelling character, all this would be worthy of following. Too often I felt as though I should be caring, and almost cared about these people and their decisions, but was not quite there. I was troubled by my non-reaction, since I am usually pretty easily moved by stories about the mentally impaired. To give an example, when I was in the eighth grade, I was devastated for a week after seeing Charly, the film adaptation of Flowers for Algernon. Why then was Boswell’s depiction of the impaired not doing anything for me? Had I grown heartless? It is likely Boswell was trying to do too many things at once, and in turn failed to bring the story to its full potential. Novelists will sometimes make the mistake of treating the form as a space in which to show off their own talents. In effect, the project itself becomes more about the novelist than the novel itself. I imagine that’s what happened here, “bighearted and profound” though the attempt is. None of the patients were given the necessary space, and the result is that none of them stuck with me.
In the blurb on my uncorrected proof, Boswell earns comparisons to Robert Altman and Lorrie Moore. The problem with the comparison is that Altman directs films, Lorrie Moore writes short stories. At times I wished that Tumbledown was either of those forms instead of the novel it is. I think that this is because, if it were structured as short story collection, I’d be more forgiving of the lack of connections among characters. In a film, I’d be able to see the struggles of the mentally impaired—particularly Karly— more clearly on the screen. Or perhaps it is because Tumbledown is lacking something subtle that that an actor can convey about mental illness. (So many of their struggles have nothing to do with non-verbal formulations.) Just watching the Charly as he goes home to his room, struggles to write the day’s chores on a blackboard. Or looking closely for something in the face, as Charly’s mouth twitches when he is trying to figure out the answer to a simple question: “What do cars and airplanes have in common?”
Oren Smilansky is currently working on his M.F.A. in nonfiction writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.