Congratulations to W6 friend Patrick Somerville for this terrific review of his new novel in the New York Times. Somerville, whom I interviewed back in September as part of the Writers At Cornell series, is the author of a good story collection, Trouble. I liked those stories, and I like Somerville, but The Cradle is, in my view, a huge leap forward for this writer, and a testament to how much life is still left in straightforwardly written psychological realism.
I'm very suspicious, I should mention, of the whole "simplicity" thing. A few years back, there was a bit of hulabaloo when the long-blocked Tony Early rolled out a new, un-ironic version of himself in Jim The Boy, a book that I didn't like much. This was also around the time of the whole Jedediah Purdy thing, and it all seemed, at the time, a step back not just from postmodern angst, but emotional complexity, and I grew suspicious of anything that smacked of the New Simplicity.
Patrick's story collection is very guy. All the stories are, in some respect, about their protagonist's tussles with the notion of masculinity. And the novel, too, is a guy novel. Which is not remotely to say it's for guys to read. Indeed, it differs from the stories in the beautifully open moral and emotional qualities of its main character, a guy named Matt, whose pregnant wife, Marissa, has asked him to go find the cradle she slept in as a baby. The request is irrational in the extreme, and its fulfillment likely to be fraught with difficulties, but Matt decides to do it.
At first, the book takes the form of a fairly conventional quest narrative. Matt enounters a lot of strange characters, and gets himself into various apparently picayune situations, in the course of searching for the cradle. But when he finds it, he finds something else, as well--an intolerable situation, related to Marissa's own upbringing, which Matt alone has the power to rectify. The novel stops being about the quest and starts being about more important things--about being an adult, about having the courage to do the right thing, when the right thing is unimaginably complex and undesirable. Furthermore, this narrative is crosscut with a second one, about a mother terrified of her teenage son's impending military service in Iraq. This story line is set ten years after the main one, and it's unclear for quite a long time how they're connected. But they are, and they dovetail beautifully, magnifying and elaborating upon the book's already quietly established themes.
The prose is clear, funny, and supple; the characters are humanely drawn and wonderfully convincing. The whole thing is only a couple hundred pages. The book reminds me of a few of my favorite short novels--The Optimist's Daughter, The Name Of The World, Winter In The Blood, and I expect to return to it often. It's about hope and responsibility in the midst of chaos and confusion, which, in this spring of our discombobulation, may be just the ticket.