BookBrowse Reviews The Blizzard Party by Jack Livings

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The Blizzard Party

by Jack Livings

The Blizzard Party by Jack Livings X
The Blizzard Party by Jack Livings
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2021, 416 pages

    Paperback:
    Feb 2022, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Peggy Kurkowski
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A sprawling debut novel explores the memories, machinations and motivations of a vast cast of characters whose lives converge in New York City during the historic Blizzard of 1978.

It is 1978 and the place is New York City. A massive bacchanalian party is taking place at an Upper West Side apartment suite inside the Apelles complex, a beehive of well-to-do and elite New Yorkers. Hazel Saltwater is six years old and inexplicably dropped into the middle of this vortex of drugs, sex and mayhem. She is dozing peacefully in a small guest room with the cacophony of the party relegated to a muted roar when she is joined by Albert Caldwell, a 74-year-old ex-lawyer and current dementia patient, who is shown into the room to rest on a separate twin bed. Bad things follow, but not quite the way one might expect.

Welcome to The Blizzard Party, an ambitious and panoramic debut novel by Jack Livings, the recipient of the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for his book of short stories, The Dog (2014). At the center of this storm tale is Hazel, our omniscient narrator who dips back and forth in time, mining the lives of a diverse set of characters to reveal a multiplicity of lived experiences. These detours into anterior alleys reveal Livings' ability as a short story writer, as the book tells many stories, each as engrossing as the larger arc: Hazel's life and her memories of what happened at the blizzard party in 1978.

It is a story in contradiction to the one her father, Ernest Saltwater, turned into a mega-bestseller called The Blizzard Party, where he imagined his daughter's experience, and even used her real name, a violation of privacy Hazel cannot change but seeks to redress. This she does in the pages of this telling of the events of the party and beyond, reclaiming and reframing her very existence. Beginning with that fateful night, Hazel eloquently narrates her life's traumas and complications that were set in motion by the people attending and tangential to that fateful party high above the streets of the city — some of whom would alter and shape her destiny.

A fascinating assortment of characters populates Hazel's journey, beginning with her father, Ernest, a man who carries the past around his neck in the form of endless and puzzling phobias. His career as a writer is dead in the water by the night of the blizzard party, the events of which will soon turn it around — but at what cost? Then there is the catalyst of tragedy, the former lawyer Albert Caldwell, whose gradual loss of his mental faculties leads to ghastly consequences. The sweet and earnest Vikram is a young teenager at the party and becomes an unwitting participant in the night's surreal events, and later Hazel's husband. And, finally, appearing out of the swirling hiss of snow and wind is John Caldwell, Albert's estranged son, running from a deadening rage that knows no balm, trudging through searing memories and steep snowdrifts to find his wayward father.

The task Livings sets himself is a daunting one: how to weave all these uniquely striated lives and damaged psyches into a tapestry that forms a meaningful pattern. It is as if each character we meet in The Blizzard Party is a snowflake pulled from the blinding storm, set upon crushed black velvet and seen through a microscope, brilliantly and uniquely attenuated. How each of these snowflakes, so unique and ostensibly unconnected, swirl and crash into each other over the course of one wild night is a testament to Livings' ability to write a bold clincher. But with such a large canvas — as big as the city itself — the artist is prone to some lengthy and sweeping discursions that devolve into self-indulgent, stream-of-consciousness run-on sentences which may leave the reader gasping for air.

It is a small price to pay, however. With stunning and compulsively readable dialogue, elegant explorations of inner lives containing memories ranging from World War II to 9/11, Livings sets the bar high and takes literary risks where others might tremble. Despite a few stumbles in execution, The Blizzard Party is a superb literary debut bound for applause and wide recognition.

Reviewed by Peggy Kurkowski

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in April 2021, and has been updated for the March 2022 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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