By Liese O'Halloran Schwarz
Carroll & Graf. 332 pp. $18.95
What we have here is the archetypical first novel: strong in promise, long on flaws. "Near Canaan" is intelligent, thoughtful and resourceful; it's also predictable, derivative and careless. Mostly these are difficulties of youth and inexperience, and thus all too characteristic of apprentice work; but on behalf of Liese O'Halloran Schwarz it must be said that she seems to have gotten no help at all from her editor, for many of the mistakes she makes are those that editors are paid to correct.
Schwarz is a third-year medical student at the University of Virginia, which adds a distinctive fillip to her author's biography; though as Ethan Canin reminded us a couple of years ago, and William Carlos Williams more distantly, medical people doubling as authors aren't quite so rare as we tend to think. Be that as it may, her medical training shows up in "Near Canaan" only briefly, and that in a scene a layman probably could have handled with little difficulty; the point is that this is the work of a real writer, or at least a real writer in the making, rather than of a doctor playing at the writer's trade.
The novel is set in the fictitious Northern Virginia town of Naples. It is very much a "Southern" novel; you'll find echoes of just about all the region's more notable writers herein, in particular those such as Thomas Wolfe who have dealt with the South's social and psychological structure as opposed to its dark and tortured history. Though Schwarz has constructed an elaborate plot involving no small amount of melodramatic twisting and turning, what seems of greatest interest to her is Naples as an entity, as prototypical small town.
Thus it is that the college student who comes to Naples in hopes of making a film that will explore the mysteries of his late mother's life ends up with a document about Naples itself. The mysteries go unsolved, by him if not by the reader, but he comes to an understanding of small-town life, of the complex arrangements and relationships that underlie its seemingly tranquil, placid surface. The film he ends up with is "interesting stuff," he admits, "even if it isn't what I came here for."
His name is Buddy Gates and he is 18 years old, a student at a university in New York City whose sole academic interest is a filmmaking course. The teacher tells him that the would-be filmmaker should start "with documentaries, editing scriptless potluck footage into a meaningful whole." It occurs to Buddy that an apt subject for such a film might be the small Virginia town in which his mother grew up, and that he might find some clues there to her decision, two years earlier, to take her own life:
"He had a theory about secrets: they could do no good. Concealment permitted things to fester, things that would be neutral and sterilized by the open air. Something in his mother had festered, enough to make her insides bubble and churn, enough to make her shoot herself through the forehead, one afternoon not long after Christmas."
She was born Beth Miller, before acquiring a first husband who changed her name to Crawford and a second who made it Gates. As a teenager she was "something of a town sensation": popular, intelligent and beautiful, but also independent, a touch contrary and willful, "like a grown woman with that secret smile." The boys flocked around her, but only Jack Corbin won her, and he only for a while.
Now Jack is in his fifties; he and his younger brother, Gil, give Buddy a wary welcome and tell him part -- but only part -- of his mother's story as each of them understands it. As the pieces of that story gradually fit together, for the reader if not entirely for Buddy, Beth's secrets are uncovered and her place in the town's mythology is fixed.
Unfortunately Schwarz is not very good at keeping her cats in the bag. A clue she drops clumsily on one page tells the dullest-witted reader what's coming in the rest of the book; even for me, no sleuth, there were no surprises after that. It's a plotting error that an editor could and should have caught, just as is the error that gives Jack's ex-wife's name as Miriam in one chapter and as Marie in the rest -- just as, for that matter, is Schwarz's tendency to drift away from the main action of her tale into diversions that don't really illuminate it.
These are problems that writers face all the time, but often they're too close to what they've written to see its faults. Editors can point them in the right direction, but clearly no editor gave Schwarz much if any help. So wish her better luck next time; she deserves it.