WHAT YOU HAVE LEFT
By Will Allison
Free Press. 210 pp. $23
The title of Will Allison's first novel, What Yo u Have Left, is a play on words. What Wylie Greer leaves behind in 1976 is his 5-year-old daughter, Holly. And what Holly is eventually left with is her aging grandfather and an ache that no amount of rage, alcohol or video poker can satisfy. The novel takes its place on the shelf of American abandonment fiction, a subgenre that ranges from Huckleberry Finn to Housekeeping. In spare, transparent prose, Allison takes us through nearly four decades in the lives of a South Carolina family crippled by the past and unarmed for the future.
Like many fiction writers, Allison has come to the novel via the short story. His chapters, non-chronological and from a variety of perspectives, read like autonomous, sometimes too tightly compressed pieces. Though focusing on one particular tension in each chapter, the author has the short story writer's habit of averting his gaze at the last minute, leaving the reader to guess how the crisis played itself out. And big things sometimes happen too quickly. While painting the state capitol, Holly's husband, Lyle, burns the Confederate flag on a bet, loses his job and is forced to ask his father for work. "He didn't seem to notice that in the course of the last day, he had become exactly the person he never wanted to be."
The strength of What You Have Left lies in the relationships among its characters. When Lyle, who has been as present as Wylie has been absent in Holly's life, tracks down her father, he ends up promising Wylie he won't tell Holly. As the two men say goodbye, Lyle thinks, "I get the feeling he sizes me up, decides then and there that though I may be important in his daughter's life, I'm not necessarily permanent. Not like blood relations. Not like him." In deft passages such as this, Allison captures the truth and irony of being part of a family, no matter how broken it is.
When Wylie finally does make contact, it is Holly's daughter Claire who is able to respond without bitterness. But Wylie has suffered seizures from alcohol poisoning and has lost his short-term memory. He asks Claire how old she is several times within a few minutes.
" 'I'm ten,' she said. 'Same as the last time you asked.'
" 'Maybe so,' my father said, 'but you'll be eleven before I remember it.' "
In their easy rapport and the bond that grows between them, Holly finally finds her peace -- and the novel its surest step.
-- Lily King is the author of the novels "The Pleasing Hour" and "The English Teacher."