Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, July 6, 2008
By Roxana Robinson
Sarah Crichton/Farrar Straus Giroux. 420 pp. $25
Cost will get tagged immediately as that story about heroin addiction, but what's best about Roxana Robinson's scarily good novel has nothing to do with opiates. Oh, she's done her homework well, and she writes about every aspect of the drug -- its use, its effects and especially its personal, financial and spiritual costs -- with flesh-itching precision. But if heroin is what gives this novel its rush, Robinson's sensitivity to family relations is what makes it so compelling.
Most of the story takes place at a seaside house in Maine. For Julia, an artist and art professor, this was meant to be a tranquil vacation with her elderly parents, but those plans are quickly swept aside. On his way home from Seattle, her elder son, Steven, stops in Brooklyn to see his younger brother, Jack. Immediately, he realizes something is wrong. Drugs had always been part of Jack's life, but now "he looked terrible; pale, very thin. Dark stubble stood out against his white skin. . . . Jack's presence seemed dead, flattened. No light came from him, the air around him was inert." When Steven arrives at his mother's house, he reluctantly tells her what he suspects. Julia calls her ex-husband, who brings Jack to the house in Maine, and together the whole family begins a faltering, panicked process of intervention, counseling and treatment that absorbs all their lives.
Every aspect of this ordeal seems horrifyingly authentic, sharp enough to pierce any smug confidence you might harbor that addiction only happens to other people, the dissipated children of bad parents. Poor Julia vacillates between denial and terror, haunted throughout the story by the phrase, " People died from this." And Jack, once "so original, so bright and charming, so good-natured," is now a repellent mixture of desperation and self-righteousness, filled with self-loathing. "He needed to get out of his skin, his mind," Robinson writes. "He wanted to exist in a different way. He wanted smack. His body yearned for it." As the cravings scrape away his personality, he infuriates, manipulates and disappoints everyone trying to help him.
Although Robinson sticks with the familiar trajectory of these cases, the precision of her observations keeps the story raw: The family members struggle with blame, anger, shame and tough love as they quickly learn about addiction; the Internet makes everybody an expert, but when the information is so discouraging -- "Even with rehab, only one person in thirty makes it to five years" -- what good is such knowledge? "It's like an exercise in existential torture," his father says. "Our punishment is to sit for eternity and watch our son destroy himself." The patronizing drug counselor with his canned slogans and "pretentious psychospeak" -- $25,000 a month, no guarantees -- will make you want to hit your head against a wall.
But as alarming as this crisis is, what gives the story such emotional depth is Robinson's astute portrayal of the private anxieties that each family member harbors -- anxieties that often have little to do with Jack and the addiction that's killing him. Robinson has perfected a kind of rotating point of view that allows her to move gracefully, seamlessly from character to character so that we're privy to each person's thoughts, one after another. I've never read such a spot-on description of the mingled feelings of affection and frustration one feels for one's parents as Robinson spins out here with sometimes comic effect. Over and over again, Julia is startled by the irreconcilable desires to love her parents and protect them and to bludgeon them for being so damn annoying and judgmental.
"Julia wanted her parents here -- she loved them -- but their presence altered her gravity," Robinson writes. "She was an adult, with her own children, nearly grown, and she should long ago have moved beyond this confusion. But her parents' presence still unsettled her. When they were here, the house seemed small and ill equipped, the doors put on backward, the light switches unconnected, a troubling dreamscape where nothing was right." Julia feels so blessed to have her parents alive, with her, and yet just a few simple questions before lunch can send her into a smoldering rage. Even her mother's expression of gratitude "was like a tiny blow," Robinson writes, "an offer of intimacy against which Julia hardened her heart, though she did not know why," and yet the next moment, "affection flooded through her for her elderly, struggling parents."
Meanwhile, they're wrestling with their own conflicts. Her 88-year-old father was for many decades one of the country's leading neurosurgeons, a man of daunting power and self-confidence, accustomed to holding people's lives in his hands. "He'd always been in charge," Robinson writes, "it came naturally to him." But now his mental and physical powers are receding rapidly, and the world offers him only frustrations and flaws. Worse, he's beginning to suspect that his wife, whose loving nature he's so long taken for granted, is losing her memory. Her affliction seems like the cruelest repudiation of his career as a brain surgeon.
Julia's sweet mother may be the novel's most delicate, masterful creation. An 86-year-old woman of indomitable good will, she's terrified of the subtle, early signs of Alzheimer's, but she's become a master at the noncommittal response, the vague greeting: "The thing was not to pause," she thinks. "It was like walking a tightrope: never think about falling, never stop moving." She knows these techniques can take her only so far. "What she feared was not recognizing someone she knew. Worse, someone in her own family. Would it come to that? How long would it go on, this slow tide eating at the edges of her mind? She felt the deep shame of illness. . . . She wanted no one to know."
With such fierce moments of anxiety and grief, this is, frankly, a challenging novel to read, but Robinson's insight makes it impossible to break away. She has crept into corners of human experience each of us is terrified to approach: the loss of our children, our parents, our minds, the implacable tragedies that shred our sense of how the world should work. Toward the end, Robinson writes, "There was now a great silent ringing where the sky had been." Like every moment in this novel, that sounds chillingly right. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.