"Everybody, it seems, has to live in this tumbledown world, not just him. He isn't alone..." These thoughts, which occur to one of Robert Boswell's characters near the end of Tumbledown, sum up its theme (or at least the experience of reading the book) well. The story manages to wrest a kind of hopefulness from what could, in other contexts or in other hands, be a pretty bleak setup for a novel.
Tumbledown' s central character is thirty-something James Candler. A counselor at Onyx Springs, a treatment facility outside San Diego, he's on the verge of a big administrative promotion. Candler has been groomed for this position almost since his arrival he now has the clothes, fancy car, and even the fiancée that, according to the outgoing director's definition of success, such a position requires.
No one's been watching Candler's rise as closely as Elizabeth (Lise) Ray. A former stripper and drug user, she had one therapy session with Candler years ago, and hasn't been able to get him out of her mind since then. She even went so far as to follow Candlerunbeknownst to himto his new town in the San Diego suburbs, biding her time until she can engineer another meeting with him, this time of the romantic variety.
It doesn't take long for her to do so, but her timing isn't great. In just two weeks' time, Candler's fiancée is scheduled to move to the United States from the UK, where the two met. Lise is determined to make the most of the fourteen days, even as Candler grows more and more confused and conflicted about what (and whom) he really wants. Their interactions during this two-week period are interspersed with a heartbreaking incident from Candler's youth, specifically surrounding his older brother, who had (undiagnosed) autism. The juxtaposition of these two narrative threads is skillfully done, as is the novel's opening chapter, in which a present-day narrative intersects complexly but seamlessly with the story of Lise and Candler's shared past. Such ambitious story-telling is not easily accomplishedand could easily be overlooked or dismissed in a novel that is in many ways a comedy. But this skillful piecing together of plot linesresulting in a whole even richer and more dynamic than the sum of its partsis part of what makes Tumbledown such an exhilarating pleasure to read.
Lise and Candler's story is not the only one that readers will be drawn to in this sprawling, delightfully overstuffed novel. Readers also come to know Candler's old pal Billy Atlas and several of their clients, each of whom has landed at Onyx Springs for different reasons. There's Karly, a stunningly beautiful but mentally challenged young woman who seems to have no real understanding of her effect on men. There's Mick, hopelessly besotted with Karly and struggling to find a balance between his schizophrenic confusions and the occasionally even more debilitating haze brought on by his medication. There's Maura, the cynical teenager whose hard-as-nails exterior and troubled past belie her vulnerabilities and her own infatuation with Mick. And there's a handful of others, too, brought together daily for vocational training (see 'Beyond the Book').
These are people most of us don't encounter very often in daily life, let alone in fiction, and although Boswell does acknowledge the humor in some of their circumstances (Karly is a comically poor joke-teller, for example, and another seriously impaired man is a chronic masturbator), he ultimately portrays them with compassion and generosity, urging readers to do the same. These characters, whatever their faults or shortcomings, seek love, connection, and dignity, just like anyone else. Boswell's novel reminds us of the fragility of these kinds of connections but also of their vital necessityit recognizes the imperfections of "this tumbledown world," while highlighting the power and potential of every person to seek beauty and find meaningful relationships with others.
This review was originally published in September 2013, and has been updated for the September 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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