By Johnny Payne, author of THE HARD SIDE OF THE RIVER
Beginning with the Book of Lamentations, Barker announces suffering and the hope that is to follow, and that is the curve of this forward-looking novel. Here, religious faith meets the imperfection implied by humanism. It is the story of a little family, modest in its ambitions, looking mainly for closeness. But there are nasty wounds, some of them self-inflicted. In other hands, sexual addiction and child abuse might set the tone for a grim, Zola-esque recounting, fatalistic in outlook. The novel begins with the excitement of home runs recounted, and Dad closing a deal. Dad’s 1950 Chevrolet gleams in the son’s future, as the latter goes to wax it. Soon this gives way to Joe, the father’s, seduction of a young woman, because his practiced eye know that “all the women come to the parties full prepared for being seduced.” Things get good and sordid, just shy of a potboiler, but walking that line mostly with success. A typical scene ends with a fist in the face by a jealous real partner. Joe’s inner struggle is Faulknerian, the family curse: brilliant martyrdom. Booze and a woman at hand, but Joe in a perpetual bad mood, with sex as a “battering ram for his aggression.” There are sloppy explanations, brusque equivocations. Underneath, the current of hope simmers. Joe wants his woman to feel safe, if he can figure out how. First, he has to figure out for sure which one she is. Julie comes, her perfume mixing with the crisp high country air. Always the shadow of the father haunts him. The sex is plentiful but not explicit. Strangely, one’s precocious child could read it and not be offended. The novel is driven by dialogue, something in the nature of a screenplay. Inevitably, Joe ends up in the church confessional. Meanwhile, Wendy agonizes over smaller sins. Much of the novel is about “release,” a word that applies both to coitus and the mystics, the ecstasy of a body and that of God, two parallel paths. As this struggle continues, dark, wounding secrets about the past present themselves. There I leave the matter. You’ve have to read the novel to know where this undercurrent takes him and you. Barker’s novel deserves readers. One feels in the writing commitment, a yen to get down under the skin and find out what the characters are all about. No one is disparaged, yet no one is spared either.