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Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, November 2, 2008

THE FLYING TROUTMANS

By Miriam Toews

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Counterpoint. 275 pp. $24

Miriam Toews saunters along the line between comedy and grief as if she might lose her balance at any moment. But she never does. The precarious tone of her novels about fractured families is the crafted effect of a nimble writer. Raised by Mennonites in a small Canadian town, Toews has developed an irresistible sense of absurdity leavened with real affection for the quirky characters who inhabit her stories.

The Flying Troutmans, her fourth novel, invites immediate comparison with the popular indie movie "Little Miss Sunshine." Like Michael Arndt's film, it's about a collection of oddball family members on a cross-country road trip toward a highly unlikely goal. Deadpan irony and hip cultural references abound. But Toews steps over the camp and sentimentality of "Little Miss Sunshine" and displays a sharper sense of the grinding tragedy of mental illness.

The story is narrated by Hattie Troutman, a young woman who's just been dumped by her flaky boyfriend in Paris when she gets word that her older sister, Min, has fallen into a deep depression -- again. Hattie would rather wander around the City of Light feeling sorry for herself, but somebody has to take care of Min and her two kids back in Canada. She's been trying to kill herself for years, Hattie explains. "I had no choice. There was no question." But she finds the situation at home even more alarming than she'd feared. Bedridden and suicidal, Min needs to be hospitalized immediately. "Please help me die," she asks Hattie, and then tells her not to let the kids visit. "It's too hard."

Unable to let her niece and nephew know the truth and realizing that they'll be sent into foster care, Hattie devises a half-baked scheme to find their father. With only a vague sense of where he might be -- somewhere in California, perhaps -- the three of them set out in a rickety old van.

Yes, the road trip storyline is a little tread-worn, but Toews has created such an engaging cast for this 2,000-mile trek that you'll never be tempted to ask, "Are we there yet?" Most of the novel's success stems from the fact that Min's two witty children are irresistible characters, alternately vulnerable, affectionate, terrified, brave and annoying. They're also very bright, not like the "gifted" children of every parent in the Washington area, but scarily precocious, burdened with that alienating sense of insight that can wreak havoc on young lives.

Hattie's 11-year-old niece, Thebes, who never bathes or changes her clothes, has fake tattoos all over her arms and dyes her hair intense purple. She wears a toy holster, practices martial arts, makes "oversized novelty cheques" for everyone, and greets strangers with gangsta salutations: "What's shakin' homies?" All sticky from cotton candy and covered in glitter, she's a tear-your-heart-out character.

"I'm on thin ice in the social hierarchy department," she tells her aunt, with her usual degree of disarming self-knowledge. Hattie notices that "Thebes had become a talking machine. Maybe she was attempting to use up all the words that Min had left behind, taking whatever popped into her head, any thought, idea or fact, and transforming it into sound, noise, life. She was talking for two, in double time."

Her brother, 15-year-old Logan, seems a little better adjusted, but he's moody, teenage-quiet and in love with Deborah Solomon, the weekly Q&A columnist for the New York Times Magazine. Mostly, he's cloaked in a grey hoodie, listening to music on a pair of "giant air traffic controller headphones." But there are cracks in that impenetrable façade, times when Hattie can feel him screaming, "Rescue me."

Toews is a genius at recording the everyday weirdness of young people, their capricious vacillation between screw-you sarcasm and tender pleading for affirmation. Some of the funniest parts of The Flying Troutmans describe the word games, art projects, true confessions and circular arguments to which a long, mind-numbing car trip can drive people of all ages. "Conversing with children is a fine art," Hattie realizes. "An art form that demands large amounts of both honesty and misdirection."

"Can we not talk?" Logan pleads.

"Let's have a quiet contest," Hattie suggests.

As this "ad hoc family" wanders through one comic encounter after another on their way to California, Toews keeps the story grounded with flashbacks of Hattie's childhood. Min suffered from a frightening range of symptoms of manic depression and suicidal, even homicidal, behavior that their parents struggled to ignore or laugh off. We're never allowed to forget for long that, beneath the comedy, this is a story of loving someone who is mentally ill and of standing by your responsibilities no matter what.

Hattie believes she has no idea what she's doing, but her instincts are right. "There is not one single thing that I am certain of," she confesses, "except that I have to make sure Thebes and Logan are taken care of." There is no false promise in this story, just an awareness that in this chaotic world the only stability comes from our love for one another, quirks and all. In Toews's hands, that can be funny or heartbreaking, usually at the same time. When Hattie describes Logan as "all badly disguised tenderness and tentative joy," you know just what she means. ·

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at charlesr@washpost.com.


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