Mackie, the protagonist of "Forgotten Impulses," is the man who had everything -- good looks, intelligence, a stunning wife, a great job as an English professor -- until he is fired for reasons he won't explain, and returns to the small town in Illinois where he grew up. His voice is one in a series of alternating soliloquies spoken by the main characters: Phyllis, his beautiful, clever wife, looking for a solution to their troubled marriage; Margaret, his mother, surviving the memories of her marriage to Mackie's violent, gloomy father; Dink, Mackie's younger, gentle and good-natured brother; and Gina, Dink's girlfriend, eager for sex and love.
Their voices unfold in a story that involves the past as well as the present. Mackie's father beat him and died violently a few months before Dink was born. Although handsome, well-educated and apparantely successful in his career and marriage, Mackie is emotionally sterile. When his "perfect" facade begins to crumble, the other characters are also affected. Phyllis moves across town to concentrate on her painting and herself. Dink and Gina become lovers, then Dink and Phyllis fall in love. Events have a strong impact on these characters, and the modulation of plot is Walton's strength. The soliloquy technique, with characters giving different points of view on the same incidents, has a layering effect, feeding the reader information until the story is complete. William Faulkner used this technique in "As I Lay Dying," and since Walton also quotes Faulkner, he invites the comparison.
Faulkner's novel created voices at once authentic and literary, poetic and natural. He shows us characters who are rural, uneducated, but also complex. Walton, too, wants the reader to perceive his characters as more complex and insightful than they might appear to be, but he also struggles to persuade us they're "just folks" anyone can identify with. Dink praises city-wise Phyllis because "she doesn't talk down to me or do anthing to make me feel culturally inferior, which I am, God knows," and Phyllis bends over backwards to show she's not better than everybody else. The contemporary tone and underlying attitude -- that everything's cool if one can just be open about it -- tends to equalize the characters and destroy the distinctions among the five narrative voices
At the same time, the book oversimplifies what is, in fact, complicated and rich -- the relationship of past to present, of rural to urban America, the effects on people of education, loss of innocence, and leaving home. The small town, for example, is seen consistently as naive and boring, a place of "often overwhelming simplicity that can sometimes make you feel miserably purposeless," while city life, represented by Phyllis and Mackie, is sophisticated and fascinating, if dangerous. "I didn't understand exactly what he meant," Gina says of Mackie, "but I got a feeling from the way he talked that there are forces out there beyond anything we've ever thought about."
Mackie's view of "young women," supported by other characters, is also oversimplified. They are uncomplicated, instinctual, totally sexual, and he finds in brief liasions with them the only release from his inability to experience deep connections with others. Mackie continually separates thoughts and words from emotions, threatened by Phyllis because she "knows more than I know because she stops thinking when she loves." "Forgotten Impulses" emphasizes the importance of simply "feeling," both for Mackie, who can't, and the others, who do so abundantly.
Walton also emphasizes the expression of feelings, and the characters utter them as if they were rare bits of insight. The novel works so hard to show that ordinary people are profound. It's both too simple and not simple enough. Instead of evoking the drama and wisdom inherent in the characters and situation, it has them explaining themselves and each other in a ponderous or facile way. When Phyllis is about to leave for California she thinks, "I'll miss my Tamaroa self, too. She's a very strong self. I suppose I'm not really losing her. She'll just be more complicated in a more complicated world." This tendency towards obvious self-analysis is a hazard of first-person fiction, and Walton has five first-person narrators. Their eagerness to philosophize in post-1960s laid-back fashion takes much of the mystery out of human nature and makes them appear only as wise as their words.
Walton's characters keep telling us they've changed but there isn't enough evidence of how they've grown. Mackie does not make a final peace with his past; Gina loses innocence without gaining wisdom and is hardened, not tempered, by pain. Outer events, not inner development, trigger most of the characters' responses; confession relieves and absolves them. Everything -- violence, switches in affection, manipulation -- is okay and understood because we're all only human, doing our best. "I'm sorry things didn't work out," Dink tells Gina, "but we can't go around lying about how we feel . . . If we couldn't change our minds about the way we feel, we wouldn't be alive." Yes, but why do we change our minds? What inner gear slips to make us fall in and out of love, to make us restless, or troubled, or unable to love? There's enough going on in Walton's book to make the reader care about the workings of these characters; but the impulse to explore, to probe below their surface seems to be the one that he forgot.