Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Review: Lake Overturn by Vestal McIntyre

Vestal McIntyre
Lake Overturn

Published by HarperCollins

Reviewed by Eric Karl Anderson

Many liberal Americans and citizens of the wider world might view the rural Pacific Northwest as a cultural wasteland, politically red states to fly over on your way to California. This is reflected in literature and films which often focus exclusively on the anxieties and tribulations of people who live in the coastal regions. Yet, Vestal McIntyre writes about a group of superficially-ordinary people from one such fictional town ‘Eula, Idaho’ in a way that is vivid, exciting and profoundly moving. The novel follows their lives over the course of a year in the mid-80s. The author shows impressive versatility writing about the perspectives of male and female Eula citizens from a variety of races, ages, religions and social classes. Central to the book are Lina, a Catholic housecleaner and single mother who tentatively begins an affair with a married man; her two sons Jesus, a teenager who mostly grew up in a wealthy white foster family, and Enrique; Connie, another single mother who is a devoted Christian that struggles to form a bond with her eccentric special son Gene; and Wanda, a young woman with an occasional drug habit who is determined to become a birth mother to a couple who can’t conceive a child. Each of the characters encounters a number of personal challenges which cause their perspectives of the world to shift over the course of the novel.

Enrique is the character who probably grows and changes the most throughout the story. A cerebral adolescent boy of Mexican heritage, he navigates his emerging homosexual feelings in a way that feels original and real. The author writes intelligently about this period of a boy’s life when developmental changes occur so rapidly that he turns from a persecuted “faggot” to a bitter solitary individual to a handsome socially-ambitious teenager who plays a sexual prank on a girl he would rather befriend. His erotic fantasies also quickly shift as he shares a perplexing intimate moment with his friend, is beaten up by a bully and encounters men in a bus station’s public bathroom. The descriptions of his slow sexual maturation speak honestly about the complex way our sexuality evolves and changes with the interplay of fantasy and reality. Enrique also maintains a dialogue with an unusual imaginary friend and is quick to eschew his closest friends as his values and desires adjust in line with his evolving understanding of himself.

But equally compelling are the bitter struggles Connie experiences in her literal interpretation of the bible. Rather than fall into using caricature or making judgements about this character, the author treats her beliefs with a great deal of respect and puts forth a number of compelling theological arguments concerning dilemmas in Christian beliefs. We are able to see through the eyes of Connie and the wider community who dismiss Wanda. Yet, we are also given a sharp look at her strong inner life as she optimistically hopes to abandon her drug use. We are shown how she wishes to assist in the propagation of a child as a way of completing a family that has a chance at happiness denied to her own. Her struggle is bitterly heart-felt. There are also a host of minor characters whose lives are sensitively explored in passages which may be briefer, but are equally compelling and meaningful. These characters are above all individuals who defy being moulded into stereotypes.

The novel is structured like a scientific experiment as Enrique is working on a science project focusing on a deathly natural phenomenon called Lake Overturn for an annual fair. This is a natural disaster that killed all the inhabitants of an African village by suddenly blanketing them in carbon dioxide and instantly suffocating them. Though the event occurred across the globe, it looms over the novel ominously pointing to the fragility of the lives of these characters. The Idaho environment, rural and ragged as it is, is described in beautifully refined prose that show how the identities of the individuals who inhabit it are entwined in its landscape. In chapter after chapter, McIntyre saturates you with an engrossing amount of detail and is able to end sections of the book on a note so startling and poignant that it feels as if the breath has been knocked out of you.

Eric Karl Anderson is author of the novel Enough and has published work in various publications such as The Ontario Review, Harrington Gay Men’s Fiction Quarterly, Blithe House Quarterly and the anthologies From Boys to Men and Between Men 2.



At 9:59 AM, Blogger Tim said...

Fantastic review! I've ordered a copy, can't wait to read it.


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