In a gray place
by Keith Taylor
Novelist Craig Holden continues to resist categories. After a first couple of novels that could be classified as mysteries or crime fiction, his books have become increasingly complex, following darker paths through the soul to troubling and provocative resolutions. He also resists regional labels. His first book, The River Sorrow, captured the landscape and attitudes of southeastern Michigan, but The Jazz Bird was a historical novel placed in Cincinnati during the 1920s. In a couple of books, including the just-released The Narcissist's Daughter, he is obviously using the landscape of northern Ohio, although he has found a way to make it both real and mythic, an Anywhere, America, that remains specific to his characters.
The Narcissist's Daughter is another historical novel, but one that doesn't go back quite so far. Here most of the action takes place in the early 1970s, when whatever it was we labeled "the sexual revolution" entered middle-class culture. Sexuality, with its uncertain, often violent intersections with both obsession and love, is the stick that motivates the characters in this novel. And there is a crime, although it comes comparatively late and the question is not "Who done it?" but "Who was killed?"
The narrator, Syd Redding, is a smart kid from a poor family who is finding his way through the local public university and has begun to imagine himself in medical school. He works the night shift at a local clinic, where Ted Kessler, one of the doctor-owners, takes a patronizing interest in him. So does Ted's wife. Before long the young man is pulled into a maelstrom of voyeurism and obsession where his emotions and desires seem to have become nothing but amusements for his rich patrons. He begins to plot revenge, and in the working out of that revenge Holden exercises his wonderful sense of the permutations of plot. Even in retribution, young Syd is out of his league. Things happen, terrible things, that he doesn't understand for
a couple of decades. The fact that Syd doesn't quite know how to react to events that baffle even the reader's conventional understanding of justice and morality creates the gray space that makes this novel so difficult to categorize.
Holden does a lovely job making the landscape of The Narcissist's Daughter reflect the emotional condition of the characters. Here he describes a place where much of the action finds its resolution:
Picture an omnipresent grayness. I imagine it now as a fine ash coating everything with a simultaneous fog permeating the non-corporeal (spirits, thoughts, ambitions, moods). The great gray river, frigid and foamy and dirty and deep, formed the backdrop. We were perched at its edge, in the very gut of the city but in one of those lost spots that exist between the meaningful places of commerce and transport and education and life.
Bleak, certainly, but the perfect atmosphere for Holden's story.
Craig Holden reads from The Narcissist's Daughter at Nicola's Books on Thursday, February 10.
[Originally published in February, 2005.]