By Anthony Doerr. Scribner. 402 pp. $25
David Winkler, the 59-year-old protagonist of Anthony Doerr's debut novel, About Grace, is a dreamer but not, alas, of the carefree, California kind. Instead Winkler is a modern-day Cassandra who dreams about future events -- some momentous, some trivial -- and when he tries to warn people, he meets, for the most part, with incredulity and skepticism. As a result of this questionable gift, he also shares characteristics with two other legendary figures: Like Oedipus, Winkler is cursed with a terrible prophecy about himself that he does his utmost to avoid, and, like Odysseus, he must go on a long journey and endure many hardships before he can return home. In the hands of a lesser writer, these mythic premises might prove disastrous, but in those of the wonderfully talented Doerr, the result is a beautiful and expansive novel.
About Grace opens with an account of Winkler catching a plane from the Caribbean to Cleveland. Soon after takeoff he falls asleep in his window seat only to be awakened by the woman next to him. " 'You were dreaming,' she said. 'Your legs were shaking.' . . . He sat awhile and studied the clouds. Finally, with a resigned voice, he said, 'The compartment above you isn't latched properly. In the turbulence it'll open and the bag inside will fall out.' " Of course the woman doesn't believe him, and of course her souvenir martini glasses end up breaking in the aisle. The first half of the book goes on to detail why Winkler fled to the Caribbean in the first place and why, after more than two decades, he feels able to return to America.
Like several of the characters in Doerr's first book, the highly acclaimed collection of stories The Shell Collector, Winkler is a scientist of sorts, an aspiring hydrologist who, fortunately for someone born in Alaska, particularly loves snow. Initially he shares this passion with his empathetic mother, one of the few people to understand about his dreams. Her death when he's a teenager leaves him bereft and solitary. He grows up, goes to college and graduate school, writes a dissertation that nobody reads and gets a job with the weather service. Then one March day when he's 32, Winkler walks over to the local market to buy a sandwich and sees a woman in a tan polyester suit standing at the magazine rack, "tiny particles of dust drifting in the air between her ankles." Suddenly he knows what will happen next; he has dreamed this encounter a few nights before. The woman will drop a magazine, and he will pick it up and give it back. But when he holds out her copy of Good Housekeeping, the woman closes her eyes for a moment "as if waiting out a spell of vertigo," forgets her shopping and hurries away.
Winkler pays for her groceries and eventually tracks down the woman, Sandy, at the bank where she works as a teller; her husband of almost 15 years is the branch manager. Winkler, as he himself is fully aware, is not a prepossessing figure -- he lives above a garage, has few friends, and his only distinctive feature is glasses with "thick, Coke-bottle lenses." But after a certain amount of initial resistance, Sandy agrees to go to the movies with him.
Doerr's writing about their affair is particularly fine. He manages to convey simultaneously Sandy's ordinariness and Winkler's devotion. "He could study the colors and creases in her palm for fifteen minutes, imagining he could see the blood travelling through her capillaries." When she becomes pregnant, the two elope to Cleveland where Winkler has found a job as a meteorologist. They set up house together and seem set to live happily ever after. But soon after the birth of their daughter, Grace, Winkler begins to dream, obsessively, that he will be responsible for her dying in a flood. He starts sleepwalking, and Sandy, although she knows nothing of the dream, becomes afraid he will harm Grace. When the rains start, Winkler panics and flees to the Caribbean.
There, penniless, starving, deeply unhappy, he finds himself dependent on the kindness of strangers and, perhaps rather surprisingly, they appear. A family of fellow refugees -- Soma and Felix have fled from Chile -- takes him in and helps him to find a job, first building and then maintaining an inn. He remains for 25 years -- shades of Circe's island -- until he dreams of a second death by drowning, that of Soma and Felix's beloved daughter, Naaliyah. Partly under Winkler's influence, Naaliyah has grown up to be an ardent naturalist who spends many hours alone in a small boat, collecting specimens. With prodigious effort, he manages to change the outcome of the dream and in so doing not only saves Naaliyah's life but begins to realize, as his mother once suggested, that his dreams may not be inevitable. He applies for a passport and buys a ticket to Cleveland, determined to search for Sandy and Grace.
A quest novel is, by its nature, about delayed gratification; still, even by Odyssean standards, Winkler can be an exasperating hero. He never goes directly from A to B but instead drives a decrepit car thousands of miles around America visiting various Grace Winklers. He is at times almost willfully odd and inept. But as I turned the pages of About Grace, I realized how fully I had come to believe in him, how much I wanted him to reconnect with Sandy and Grace; I felt myself, like Winkler in his dreams, in the presence of an experience. As I neared the end, I read more and more slowly, increasingly reluctant to leave him and his intricately imagined world behind. Happily, now that the last page has been turned, I find I haven't: Winkler, with all his virtues and foibles, has taken up residence in my brain. *
Margot Livesey's new novel, "Banishing Verona," will be published in November.