Book Review: 'Lake Overturn' by Vestal McIntyre

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By Stephen Amidon
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 19, 2009


By Vestal McIntyre

Harper. 443 pp. $24.99

The title of Vestal McIntyre's engrossing first novel may have the comforting overtones of a Garrison Keillor yarn, but in fact it refers to one of nature's more deadly phenomena. Notoriously witnessed at Lake Nyos in Cameroon in 1986, an overturn occurs when built-up carbon dioxide at the bottom of a lake causes the water to invert, releasing a deadly cloud into the atmosphere. At Nyos, roughly 1,700 villagers were killed by the incident, forcing scientists to wonder just how many other time bombs were ticking beneath placid waters.

McIntyre's novel is set at the same time as this tragedy, but in a part of the world very far from West Africa: the small town of Eula, Idaho. Located in the high desert on the shores of a large lake, it is a remote outpost of American life, a conservative, deeply religious place that always seems to be about five years behind the rest of the country. It is the sort of community where the cutting edge is defined by giving the prom a "Miami Vice" theme and where social climbing involves buying a bigger trailer home.

"The earth seemed to lose its meat here and become dry," McIntyre writes, "as if a vast rock -- a skull -- rose underground, leaving only the thinnest skin of soil." Most of the town's inhabitants, particularly its women, are holding on to this blasted terrain for dear life.

Wanda, for instance, is an unemployed babysitter who finds solace in painkillers after being abandoned by a shiftless boyfriend. Her chance for happiness comes when she signs up to serve as a surrogate mother for a yuppie couple from Oregon. Connie, who works in a nursing home, tries to soothe the pain of her husband's desertion with a passionate devotion to Jesus Christ, a faith that leads her into an unlikely romance with a handsome young missionary. Lina, a housecleaner who has also been dumped by her man, flees her life's dreariness through an affair with one of her married clients, Chuck Hall.

Their children also thirst for deliverance from harsh lives. Enrique, Lina's junior high school-aged son, hopes to win the Idaho state science fair with a project about the risks of lake overturn after hearing the grim news from Cameroon, though his partnership with Connie's mercurial son, Gene, is also a way for him to explore his burgeoning homosexuality. Enrique's older brother is in love with a classmate, though he must confine his pursuit of her to anonymous notes so as not to risk offending local prejudices against Latino boys dating white girls. And Chuck's daughter must balance her desperation to flee this small town against an obligation to look after her dying mother.

In "Lake Overturn," McIntyre has created a vast, intricate lattice of relationships, reminiscent of the novels of Richard Russo. McIntyre's skill, however, is not always up to managing such a complex plot. On occasion, his narrative is repetitive. Both Connie and Wanda endure the unwelcome return of the men who ditched them in scenes that wind up feeling too similar. The reader is also afforded two visits to junior high school science fairs, when none would have probably sufficed. And McIntyre is not always wise about the amount of face time he affords members of his large cast. For instance, the book opens with a promising confrontation between a despotic high school principal and an amiable bus driver, both of whom then drop from the narrative until its last chapters.

These rookie mistakes are more than made up for, however, by a real talent for characterization and an ability to capture the dramas lurking beneath Eula's deceptively still waters. Wanda is a particularly fine creation, a woman whose lies and drug abuse cannot dent her fundamental humanity. Her interactions with the yuppie couple whose baby she is to carry are small marvels of social satire. Equally memorable is Chuck's daughter, who endangers a brilliant future in order to help her dying mother, most notably in a sequence where she must take her mother's place in the inner sanctum of the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City.

Enrique, meanwhile, provides a haunting portrait of growing up gay in a town dominated by fundamentalist Christianity and cowboy culture, where erotic fantasies must be indulged with copies of Working Out magazine and visits to the men's room of the local bus station.

McIntyre is an honest enough artist that he even makes one admire his more unlikable characters, including one whose descent into the town's culture of macho brutality is driven by a sense of racial and social inadequacy. Here is an author capable of handling even the most noxious elements when he stirs his American backwater.

Amidon's most recent novel is "Security."

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