By Ron Charles
Wednesday, July 14, 2010; C03
WHAT IS LEFT THE DAUGHTER
By Howard Norman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 243 pp. $25
Nobody screams in Howard Norman's new novel, although they should. This Washington writer maintains such a measured tone that his story seems shocking only in retrospect. At the time, you lean in, trying to catch every word, lulled by his voice as he describes the most ordinary lives that just happen to be punctuated by macabre accidents and bizarre acts of violence.
Everything in "What Is Left the Daughter" sounds smothered in regret, worn smooth in the closet of a man's guilty conscience. It's a World War II tale that reminds us, again, of the innumerable tragedies spawned by war but born thousands of miles away from battle. The story opens, like his most famous book, "The Bird Artist," with a confession: "I've waited until now to relate the terrible incident that I took part in on October 16, 1942, when I was nineteen."
The narrator is 43-year-old Wyatt Hillyer, who will spend the next 26 nights writing this long letter to his estranged daughter. It's a petition for her understanding and forgiveness, which Wyatt knows he can't expect. "I have no way of knowing," he writes, "if, after you've read a paragraph or two, any curiosity you might've had will abruptly sour to disgust, or worse." We never learn how his daughter reacts to this strange testimony, but you'll find it hard to resist his earnest appeal.
An award-winning translator who teaches creative writing at the University of Maryland, College Park, Norman offers a kind of rough-hewn poetry throughout, starting with that Yoda-like title, "What Is Left the Daughter." Wyatt is not a pretentious narrator -- he dropped out of high school and works as a maritime garbage collector -- but he's a determined student of language, who prizes the frayed "Webster's" he bought from a pawnshop for a dollar. There's an antique patina to his diction, although it's not pronounced: passing allusions to "mute angels," a stillborn birth as a "ghost child" or a blacksmith "taut of build." In the opening pages of his confession, he refers to John Keats and Emily Dickinson, an indication of the ardor that simmers just below the surface of his carefully chosen words.
The odd disconnect between the novel's sober tone and its outrageous plot is on display as soon as Wyatt begins: "Let me say it directly . . ." Twenty-six years ago, on the day his parents discovered they were both having an affair with the same switchboard operator, they leapt from separate bridges in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Orphaned but almost a man, Wyatt moves in with his aunt and uncle and begins making mail-order toboggans. He also falls in love with their adopted daughter, Tilda, who works as a professional mourner at funerals. (Yes, the story is marked by distinctly unusual jobs; Howard Norman and Anne Tyler should open a Weird Employment Agency.)
Wyatt's unrequited love for Tilda remains the foundation of his entire life -- "She was too much beauty," he recalls -- but the story is propelled by his uncle's growing anxiety about the war. Like the father in Philip Roth's "Plot Against America," Wyatt's uncle senses the danger of Hitler early but then lets it unhinge him. Hypnotized by static-laced radio reports of the U-boats prowling Canada's eastern shore, he can think and talk of nothing else. "Your aunt complains that I'm becoming more and more agitated by the day," he tells Wyatt. "Truth is, she only knows the half of just how agitated I am." Soon, the walls of his workshop are plastered with newspaper headlines of U-boat attacks, a reflection of the obsession colonizing his mind. It's a sad portrait of justified alarm and corrosive rage that ruins those he most wants to protect. (It's also a disturbing lesson on a bit of obscure history about what our northern neighbors suffered during World War II.)
All of this develops with a muted but insistent sense of menace, which Norman signals by a series of surreal images, such as a bed covered in broken bits of Beethoven records. "This war," a neighbor tells Wyatt, " -- all of us are coming apart at the seams." When the "terrible incident" of Oct. 16, 1942, arrives, it's somehow shocking and inevitable, and Wyatt's culpability is brilliantly complicated. With just a few ordinary characters -- all strict, upstanding people, in a remote town that should feel safe and tranquil -- Norman catches a stray spark of war that incinerates several lives.
The structure of the novel, though, puts considerable pressure on Norman's ability to maintain momentum. The act that alters the rest of Wyatt's life comes just halfway through the book, and even though it's a short novel, that leaves the whole second half for the narrator's stunned reflection on that tragedy. "I've sometimes raced over the years like an ice skater fleeing the devil on a frozen river," he says, and that rushing survey of the years causes the story to flag as it sinks into the dark waters of his despair.
But trust him. More strange revelations await in Wyatt's plea to his daughter. The novel gains traction again as he nears the conclusion, vowing that "the truth is the truth, and in the end it can't be lost to excuses, cowardice or lies." It's a convincing demonstration of the truism he throws off so casually on the first page: "Life is unpredictable."
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.