- By Anne-Marie Kinney
- Civil Coping Mechanisms
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by Josh Denslow
- November 19, 2018
A lonely man loses his hold on reality as he desperately searches for love.
Anne-Marie Kinney's Coldwater Canyon is as uncomfortable as a nightmare and as life-affirming as a sermon. In an emotionally desolate stretch of road in Los Angeles, we find apartment buildings that seem to have no inhabitants, a ramshackle shopping strip, a homeless man dressed as a cowboy, and flyers of missing people drawn by a young boy.
As we peer closer, digging through the crust of sand and pollution, we unearth the exposed, weeping heart of Desert Storm veteran Shep, who inhabits this lonely part of the world without ever truly being there.
With his loyal terrier, Lionel, by his side, Shep struggles to sleep, haunted by nightmares of his time in combat and his own perceived inadequacies. He spends most of his waking moments loitering in Parkdale's, the rundown convenience store run by Hung and his elderly Vietnamese parents.
In fact, Shep is there so frequently that when Hung's father has a stroke, it is Shep who drives him to the hospital. As his reward, Shep takes advantage of free beer and slices of aging pizza supplied by the shop. Without realizing it, Hung and Shep begin to count on one other for company.
But secrets abound in Coldwater Canyon. Shep, for instance, left Nebraska to follow Lila, who moved to Los Angeles pursuing fame and fortune as an actress. Lila is completely ignorant of Shep’s existence, but he knows all about her — like that she works at a diner to support herself. And, unbeknownst to Lila, Shep keeps dutiful track of her weekly schedule.
He also knows where she lives and is keenly aware of her audition routines. His own non-existent schedule is ruled by hers as he finds any opportunity to watch her go about the business of life.
Everything about Shep's journey is uneasy. Kinney does a wonderful job of parsing out bits of information regarding the man: his sickness, his life before the war with an uncaring grandmother, and ultimately, his delusions.
Shep means Lila no harm. He believes she is the daughter he conceived with a summer fling named Lorene, before being shipped off to war. Even knowing that the timing doesn't work, Shep can't let the idea go. Urged on by a love he feels he was denied with Lorene, Shep is now searching for that love again with a daughter who will never be his.
What struck me about this book was how cinematic it felt. The set pieces are exquisitely rendered. The unfolding plot is episodic, with jaunts across town where you can picture the grayed-out B-roll of city streets and luckless denizens. There are “Clerks”-style conversations between Shep and Hung where they gossip about the other stores in the strip and attempt to solve word jumbles.
And, of course, there are detective-like stakeouts from Shep's car, where he watches Lila.
Thus, it feels appropriate when Shep forays into the world of movie extras and Central Casting. Even his own character description reads like something in a one-line casting call. The extra work brings Shep in contact with Lila and leads to some of the most wonderfully awkward and tense moments in the book. I found myself physically cringing as I waited to find out what Shep was going to say.
Being near Lila overwhelms him: "There was so much her, so much she to take in." As Shep's outward appearance deteriorates and his grasp on reality unfurls, he begins to imagine the life he and Lila might have had. When Shep saves an actress in an on-set mishap, he finds himself in the bed of a movie producer. Even as her affluent life chastises him, he spins his made-up stories aloud and makes his first tentative step toward claiming Lila as his own.
Shep's mental breakdown is mirrored by Hung's obsession with Eugene, another shop owner. When tragedy strikes Hung's family, Shep is left to run Parkdale's all alone. He, too, begins to watch Eugene “Rear Window”-style. It is during this time that we get one of Shep's most piercing ruminations:
"Why did a guy like Eugene have all the love in the world? Why did love seem to be hoarded by the underserving, while people like Shep had to fight for scraps? If there was only so much love to go around, what did a person have to do, how far did he have to go, to get his share?"
Accordingly, it is the final act of Coldwater Canyon that is dedicated to seeing just how far Shep will go in order to answer his own question.
Josh Denslow’s debut collection, Not Everyone Is Special, will be published in 2019 by 7.13 Books. He plays the drums in the band Borrisokane and edits at SmokeLong Quarterly.