• Robert Boswell
  • Graywolf Press
  • 448 pp.
  • Reviewed by Jackson R. Bryer
  • September 3, 2013

A treatment center’s counselors and clients struggle to make sense of an often-absurd world in the author’s latest novel.

By any measureable standard, James “Jimmy” Candler’s life appears to be on an upward trajectory. After only three years as a counselor at the Onyx Springs Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Center in Southern California, he is certain he will be appointed the youngest director in its history at age 33––and he has the current director’s promise to manipulate the selection process to ensure that Jimmy gets the job. Jimmy has just purchased a large stucco house with a two-car garage and has also acquired a red Porsche Boxer; after a whirlwind two-week courtship in London, he is engaged to sexy Lolly Powell.

But all this changes abruptly one night at a local hangout, two weeks before Lolly is due to arrive in the U.S. A drunken Jimmy finds himself dancing with and then holding in his lap Lise Ray, “a thin woman with stringy hair … her face young and, if not for the slanting drear of alcohol, pretty.” Lise –– or Elizabeth Ray or Beth Wray, as she has called herself at different times –– has been obsessively following Candler ever since he held one counseling session with her at his previous job in Los Angeles. When he moved, she moved to be near him, unbeknownst to him. What ensues is a torrid, complicated love affair.

While Jimmy’s story is the principal one in Boswell’s entertaining and skillfully written novel, Tumbledown, it is set against the backdrop of a cast of brilliantly drawn characters: the “clients” (they are not to be called “patients”) who populate the dormitory and work spaces of the Center; the other counselors, most memorably former rock guitarist Patricia Barnstone; Jimmy’s sister Violet, Lolly’s employer in London who comes with her to the States; and Billy Atlas, Jimmy’s childhood friend who is living with him when the novel begins and becomes a workshop supervisor at the Center. And, because the novel fills in the backstory of the Candler family, we also meet Jimmy’s brother Pook, an unforgettable eccentric with genuine artistic talent who can draw pictures only of himself. Collaborating with Jimmy and Billy, he illustrates a comic book named “Same Man,” in which the main character has “a disease that gave him superpowers but it also made everyone look to him just like everyone else, and the comic book” displays “exactly what the hero saw.”

Boswell’s depicts this varied cast with great humor while at the same time avoiding caricatures; they are human beings deserving of our attention and understanding. One of the ways he does this is to view some of them from the perspective of another character. Thus, when the participants of the Center’s workshop are described, it is often through the eyes of Billy or one of the clients. When Maura falls for schizophrenic Mick, she sees his physical attractiveness and his intelligence; and when Billy comes to love the mentally impaired Karly, he sees her sexual beauty and need to be taken care of.

Boswell is masterful at recreating the conversations between the denizens of the Center; each is individualized and memorable. I frequently found myself wanting to write down some of Boswell’s best lines. A few examples: “Mick had little manly presence because he had so little presence of any kind”; “Karly was … a fantastic looker but none too bright. … [S]everal of her crayons were missing from the pack and none of them held a point”; Billy “was like a dog––a good dog, at that; house trained and utterly devoted, in possession of a repertoire of simple tricks.”

At one point early in his narrative, Boswell lists his characters’ IQs according to the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale. What is striking about these numbers is that, while most of the clients’ IQs are considerably lower than their counselors’, in several cases the reverse is true. Tumbledown makes an eloquent case that we are all deficient in some respects. We all try in our own ways to make sense of an often-baffling series of experiences and a world that itself often seems insane; the separation between “mentally impaired” and “normal” is not as great as we imagine it to be. Pook is undeniably a damaged soul with significant limitations but he has real artistic talent. The counselors at the Center supposedly represent society’s norm but, as Boswell depicts them, none have Pook’s talent and most have significant failures and tragedies in their lives. As a graphic way of illustrating this, Boswell writes an open-ended conclusion, illustrating the uncertainties and illogical nature of our existence.

Jackson R. Bryer is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Maryland and the author, editor, or co-editor of a number of books on modern American novelists and dramatists, most recently The Selected Letters of Thornton Wilder and Approaches to Teaching Fitzgerald’sThe Great Gatsby.

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