At the heart of this sensitive first novel is an acknowledgment of mystery -- the mystery behind our myths, symbols and rituals. The story exhibits a profound sense of passion and respect for the unknown, a fear of its power to exile and destroy.
The novel's outer workings are simple: Sarge and Ilana Olssen live in a deserted swimmer's training camp in upstate New York. Sarge swam and coached for years until the drowning of their son Matt. Dorey Thomas, a swimmer in her mid-20s, journeys to Sarge's remote home to ask him to coach her for the most dangerous and demanding swim ever -- the San Antonio Strait.
It is, we already know, the same swim that took his son. Sarge is, from the beginning, tough, but for mystical (and sometimes mystifying) reasons) Dorey's request seduces and softens him. He accepts the task of months of rigorous training. He enlists a former swimmer of his -- Anne Norton -- to train as Dorey's pacer (someone who, during long and dangerous swims, establishes the principal swimmer's pace). He resumes contact with an extraordinarily intelligent old friend and physician, Tycho. With Dorey's presence and her urgent desire to endure the strait, Sarge and Ilana's world is changed. So, also, are Anne's and Tycho's.
It's a simple story, really. Tough, young, female athlete audaciously seeks out the best coach to train her. Audacious because she knows he lost his only child to the freezing turbulent waters off the Washington coast and has lived in seclusion ever since. Audacious because she knows such rigorous training will alter the Olssens' lives, demanding their complete attention for months. She will live with them, and the minute details of her eating, breathing and sleeping will impinge upon and redefine their intimacy.
Anne Norton's life will be interrupted: she'll postpone work on her doctoral thesis, take leave of archery and marathon-running and viola lessons and lover, to return to the water from which she has so long been absent. Tycho will take a break from medicine and surgery and return to the rigors of daily athletics. Again a simple story that urges us, at the very least, to attend to its superficial happenings. Will Dorey survive the training and the strait? Will everyone else survive the disruptions of their lives?
Author Levin transcends the story's simple mechanics almost immediately. We begin in Sarge's dream of the drowning boy, in the repeated anguish of his loss.
"Sarge woke up the way he did every morning, thinking about the kid. It was that half-dream crawling from his intestines up, a black and white image of the way he'd looked out there with capped head bobbing between waves while Sarge leaned over starboard to see. The kid's lips were blue-gray. Daddy Daddy! he screamed, Daddy Daddy Daddy! He was puking up the hot glucose Sarge had passed him on a feeding stick minutes before. He was treading weakly, fingers shriveled to bird's feet by the salt. Stone-gray waves slammed against his shoulders, broke over his face. Daddy help! he screamed, and the wind bent it to a whisper. Daddy! Even in black and white his lips were blue."
It is from nightmare and, a little later, from vexing dreams, that Levin makes the first gesture toward mystery. From the beginning the novel will absorb the importunate dreams of all its characters, will conduct us through the rituals they devise to counter the nightmares, rituals whose very rhythm and frequency emanate from the heart of mystery itself. There is Sarge's early morning swim in cruel icy water, Ilana's careful watering of cacti and jade, her still garden. Levin uses these and other rituals dynamically: as signs of loss, creativity, mania, repose, union, exile.
It is Dorey's explicit, self-imposed exile from family and normal human life that suggests the novel's other, more profound exiles: Sarge and Ilana's long exile from each other and themselves; Sarge's estrangement from Tycho; Anne's uneasy separation from her former self; Tycho's from the truth about an accident that disfigured him for life. Dorey, according to Levin's careful characterization, remains at the center, a remarkably provocative blank onto which the others are able to project themselves.
There is, too, a mystical interchange of personalities -- Sarge and Dorey, Anne and Dorey, Tycho and Dorey, Ilana and Dorey. For Dorey, too, the blankness becomes a catalyst: she must move outward, emotionally and sexually. Dorey, like the novel, teems with the latent. Her search, like the others, seems best explained by Tycho's remarks on the ancient Greek theory of division and union, those spheres that were once split into equal parts, forever seeking the other. Thanks to Tycho and Sarge's intelligence and eclecticism, there are enough fine philosophical threads to hold the work together.
In this first novel, Levin has given us a good, solid, readable book. It has some problems. Anne's boyfriend is either too vaguely drawn or too vague a personality to appear in this intense company. The details of the training and competition, however finely articulated, are at times too copious. Sometimes the sense of mystery gets out of hand. But one is finally overcome by the book's achievement: its ability to seduce and intoxicate and be understood, its ability to speak.