Book World review of 'The Long Division' by Derek Nikitas

(Courtesy Of The Publisher - Courtesy Of The Publisher)
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By Daniel Mallory
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, December 19, 2009


By Derek Nikitas

Minotaur. 306 pp. $24.99

Here is a book to scorch the heart and freeze the blood. Here is a story that leaves the reader gasping in shock and sadness, dry-mouthed and damp-eyed, dragging in air as the final chapters detonate. Here, in abundance, is live-wire language pumping beauty, desire and violence like electric currents; here are characters so exquisitely textured, the pages nearly shudder with their breath.

Improbably, "The Long Division" begins like a Springsteen anthem: "Last house on a Friday, and Jodie's body ached for weekend." It's a line duly tweezed of definite articles, for nothing in Jodie Larkin's life seems definite: She lives paycheck to paycheck as a Kwik Kleen maid in Atlanta; she prepares for vacations that never materialize; and it's been half a decade since she saw her son, whom Jodie gave up for adoption 15 years earlier. On this fateful Friday, in that last house, she smuggles a wad of bills from a bowl ("More than she ever saw in one place, even back when she worked grocery store checkout"), hijacks a Celica and lights out for Cape Fear, where her surrendered child now lives.

Calvin has grown up his mother's obverse: affable, articulate -- "My tastes are generally ironic," he admits -- and gay, though "closeted good and tight -- no limp-wristed, lispy obviousness for his few school friends to speculate about." His adoptive parents love him; he in turn loves his best friend. And Jodie's irruption into his life presents Calvin not with a dilemma but with an opportunity.

Five hundred miles farther north, in Upstate New York, college junior Wynn accompanies his delinquent buddy Dwight on a mission to retrieve Dwight's sister from a crack den. One hour, two homicides and an errant bullet later, Wynn returns to his dorm, earlobe shredded, conscience ruptured, guilt clouding his brain, panic clotting his throat.

The intersections of these stories -- the hall-of-mirrors multiplication of their images and idioms, the sudden subtraction of their characters -- cross-hatch Derek Nikitas's extraordinary second novel. Wynn is a preternaturally gifted mathematician, a sort of scruffy John Forbes Nash who discerns in numerical code the filaments of fate, even "the language of God." Jittery before a coffee date, he "counted the swirls of his stirring straw and the clean, whole numbers settled him." The book's title, along with some of its most transcendent passages, evoke the same wonder, the same illimitable distance: the ceaseless iterations of happenstance that cleave mother from child, husband from wife, living from dead. "Death couldn't touch their abstract forms," Wynn reasons. "All of mankind wiped from the universe and fundamental truths would still exist. The living just a strange subspecies of the dead, rife with limitations" -- and all subject to the mathematical paradox known as Zeno's dichotomy: "The distance between point A and point B divided by two to the nth power, forever," he says. "The curve skirts the line closer and closer but can never strike."

"The Long Division" appropriates signature themes and devices of American independent cinema: fight-and-flight road trips, staggered chronologies, grungy motels, even jagged cross-cutting. Chapters and subsections end in mid-sentence, trailing dashes like scratch marks, as though the type tried to cling single-fingered to one narrative before plunging into another. Tiny truths glint in the flicker of Nikitas's prose, bright and crisp as flame: Jodie, frantically searching for Calvin in a bus terminal, "was alone, but she couldn't scream because she was not alone," while elsewhere, a young woman maintains a correspondence with a soldier in Iraq "because he understood real fear and could explain it to her." With each involution of the plot, centripetal force binds these people closer together; the geometries connecting their friends and families -- Jodie's sister, Calvin's father, Wynn's crush -- overlap like fractals, mutually competing, mutually completing.

Above all, this is an opus of compassion. "The Long Division" loves its characters, fears for them, and when, in a flawlessly choreographed ballet of violence, someone meets an abrupt end, the shock sears. In his acknowledgments, the author modestly dismisses himself as a writer "of minor talents." This is his only mistake. Here is a major talent.

Mallory researches modernist literature at New College, Oxford.

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