Some say there are only two plots: a character rides out of town, or a stranger rides into town. Courtney Elizabeth Mauk’s first novel, “Spark,” falls into the latter category. The stranger is Delphie, a pyromaniac who has spent the past 20 years in prison after setting fire to a suburban home while a family of four slept inside. Delphie’s younger sister, Andrea, is anxious about his looming visit. There’s the pesky chore of throwing out every candle, lighter and match she can find in the cramped Brooklyn apartment she shares with Jack, her artist boyfriend. Oh, and the grueling task of raking through childhood memories laden with guilt and blame.
Andrea can’t shake her connection to her brother’s evil deeds. “Desire and impulse, two words, inseparable. I have mulled over both,” she says. “Delphie on that shadowed slab of sidewalk, watching the Greenes’ house ablaze, his face turned up to receive the heat, the golden caress.”
“Spark” is published by Engine Books, a relatively new indie press in Indianapolis, dedicated to fiction, and Mauk is one of its first authors. She writes skillfully about the sibling bond between Andrea and Delphie, setting their new life in a layered New York landscape. When he arrives in Brooklyn, Delphie is “thirty-six but looks forty-six.” We learn that Andrea has an unusual reason for feeling so responsible for her brother: She was born to save his life because, as a young child, Delphie needed a bone-marrow transplant from a sibling.
Andrea’s guilt puts a strain on her relationship with her boyfriend. In refreshingly undramatic fashion, she breaks up with him after she snoops through his newest sketches and finds fire “on every page.” Sleepless, she begins to spend evenings with Sally, an eccentric woman she meets in a 24-hour record shop. At first, their wandering nights add a fascinating blend of surrealism to “Spark,” introducing an entrancing element into Andrea’s humdrum daily life. But throughout these scenes, Sally gains little depth, and as a result, their friendship seems as futile as their bizarre adventures.
Mauk’s strong suit is rendering city dwellers. Subway riders, trendy Brooklynites, urban children — all come to life with precision through the lens of Andrea’s lonely eyes. By the novel’s end, though, Delphie remains one of these strangers. His fate puzzles rather than enlightens. Longing for the clarity that Mauk grants passersby, we struggle to understand why she withholds — even in the final pages.
Gutting teaches creative writing at Writopia Lab, a nonprofit organization that holds writing workshops for children 8 to 18.
By Courtney Elizabeth Mauk
Engine. 222 pp. Paperback, $14.95