Robert Boswell’s “Tumbledown” takes its time. In the opening pages, the reader is introduced to James Candler and Lise Ray, who don’t quite know each other, but it’s Page 97 by the time Lise engineers a dance with Candler at a nightclub and then lands, barefoot, in his lap.
This meeting ends up being just one of many happenings in and around the Onyx Springs Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Center, a care facility in California for people with mental disabilities. Both clients and staff take turns at center stage. As their dilemmas become more and more intertwined, the inner lives of the counselors and their often very ill clients begin to reflect each other.
This isn’t a “Catch-22” premise — who’s crazier in this world? It’s a complicated, nuanced look at human experience and the insights into that experience contributed by people of varying kinds of intelligence.
Oh, it’s funny, too.
Candler is at the hub of this matrix of people. At 33, he’s favored to become the facility’s next and youngest-ever director. Characters radiating from Candler include Mick, one of his clients who has schizophrenia; Karly, a gorgeous client Mick is in love with even though she can’t remember punch lines or how to work her washing machine; and Billy, Candler’s well-meaning childhood friend who ends up running the workshop where the clients take job training.
Candler provides the more typical narrative. He’s a smart, upwardly mobile guy with middle-class problems (Which woman will he end up with? Does he actually want to become executive director?), but he also deals with serious issues from his past, particularly a brother who committed suicide.
His friend Billy is a more surprising voice. Less intelligent than Candler, less professionally successful (he has worked in a convenience store and a pizza shop), he’s in some ways a middle ground between Candler and the clients. When he takes over the workshop, he treats them as equals, and may be better at his new job than his smarter friend. Yet Billy’s kindness is twinned with a lack of sophistication that leads him into a moral dilemma.
What most enlivens “Tumbledown” is the moving inner life that Boswell imagines for his mentally disabled characters. At one point, Karly, abandoned by a trucker who had been taking advantage of her, gets lost walking home from the supermarket: “She must have gone the wrong way because when she followed the arrows she had drawn on her hand it got dark and she wasn’t home yet and she was sweaty and some dogs barking at each other wouldn’t stop. If she had a microwave, she could eat the pot pie. She was hungry and tired and the new boy in the workshop yelled a lot and had a funny name he called himself. She just thought of that for no reason.”
Mick, on the other hand, is highly intelligent but resists taking his medication. Boswell evokes this struggle by describing his racing mind when he skips his pills, his body “lethargic from the heavy winter garments the meds insisted he wear.” Boswell also connects Mick’s frustrations to those experienced by all the characters, such as when Mick contemplates the things he can’t do because of his illness: “He had plenty of regrets. Like the beach. He wished to hell he could have gone back to that beach, ripped off his clothes, and strode over the sand like a . . . god. Gods did what they wanted, took whatever and whomever they pleased.” Who among us doesn’t feel similarly frustrated by our inadequacies and desire to overcome them?
The novel takes a somewhat abrupt turn in style when Boswell gives it two endings. Yet even this is handled adeptly and allows the possibility that the story is not destined to end in tragedy — another example of the sympathetic, engaging nature of “Tumbledown.”
Burns, editor of “Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between,” teaches creative writing at Cardiff Metropolitan University in Wales.
By Robert Boswell
429 pp. $26