Excerpt from Tumbledown by Robert Boswell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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by Robert Boswell

Tumbledown by Robert Boswell X
Tumbledown by Robert Boswell
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2013, 448 pages
    Sep 2014, 456 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl

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Print Excerpt


There are yet states of being that have no name, anonymous human conditions that thrive at the periphery of powerful emotion the way bedroom communities manacle a city. James Candler and Elizabeth Ray reside in such a place. Separately. They are new arrivals. Candler showed up the last week of January, purchasing a big stucco house snouted by a two-car garage. A few weeks later, Elizabeth Ray paused in her pale subcompact to eye his residence. Neither the ugliness of it nor its enormity could dissuade her. She circled the block several times to look it over. Around the corner, she parked at an apartment complex. Her studio-with-balcony rented by the week.

The subtle pleasures of suburban life would prove difficult for Candler to seize. Shoving the mower around his front lawn left him without the humblest sense of accomplishment: what could he do in that yard? The elementary school down the street spawned a daily pa¬rade of idling station wagons and SUVs, a surprisingly civil motorcade that left gaps to protect the right-of-way at every household drive, but the polite convoy struck Candler as a funeral procession for the ozone layer. He managed to locate a decent local restaurant, a steakhouse that also served Mexican food, but it played CNN day and night on an elevated screen the size of a motel mattress. "I don't suppose you could turn that off," he asked. The waiter, a Sinaloa transplant who walked past Candler's house every weekday morning, holding hands with his fourth-grade daughter and practicing English according to her strict instructions, smiled and shook his head, saying, "People like." Even the spitting applause of sprinklers oppressed Candler, reminding him of waking as a child to a snow-covered television screen and the disturbing sense that he was sleeping through his life, and it would soon be time to die.

For Elizabeth Ray, it was an entirely different place. She looked for Candler—or evidence of him—when she visited the coffee shop, either of the bars, the grocery, the hardware store. Any aisle she turned down could reveal him, any booth might hold him. Every niche and corner resonated with the possibility of him. If the man in line ahead of her at the bank did not turn his head, he could be him. Every day she imagined the smallest details of his life.

Meanwhile, he did not know her—or thought he didn't.

People encounter life in vastly dissimilar ways. Some insist their days are orderly and unchanging, vessels on a slow-moving assembly belt, each identically filled by invisible hands. For others, the days are relentlessly complicated and unpredictable, as different, one from an¬other, as patients waiting to see a therapist. But for everyone there comes a day when the filling no longer fits the vessel, when the therapist finds himself pouring out his heart to the patient, when air is in¬distinguishable from water and out is the rough equivalent of in, a day when even the voice of god carries a dubious tremor. Such days are worthy of our attention.

Informally, the place was known as Liberty Corners. It consisted of a few housing developments, some old farms and roadside businesses, and a handful of fashionable new concerns—wine shop, bis¬tro, gym with machines and mirrors. Elizabeth Ray's apartment was on the third floor and faced the two-lane blacktop known as Liberty Highway. James Candler's house was on a street distinguished by sidewalks of red paving stones. He worked at a residential treatment center in Onyx Springs, an easy commute south on the two-lane and east on the interstate. The drive she made to La Jolla was longer and laden with traffic. Her move to the Corners had nothing to do with convenience.

On this particular day—the day James Candler would come un¬hinged—he was up earlier than usual, his morning beginning with the smell of brownies in the oven, a dripping spatula in his mouth, and an uncertain feeling in his gut that he was about to do something devastatingly stupid. He had woken to this feeling for several days now. Elizabeth Ray (she called herself Lise these days, pronouncing it like a rental agreement) remained asleep. The clothing boutique where she worked did not open until noon, and she slept best in daylight. She was dreaming that her neck had sprouted an extra head, identical to the original except for its sneer and the authority evident in its skeptical eyes. The heads vied for control of her body. A recurring, unpleasant dream. In a short while her mind would insert itself as a disembodied voice, reminding her that it was not possible to have two literal heads, and all she needed to do was change her position in bed to end the dream. This all-knowing voice was new, a manifestation of her waking self in the world of her sleeping self.

Robert Boswell. Excerpt from Tumbledown. Copyright © 2013 by Robert Boswell. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.

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