Friday, March 18, 2011

"Approximately Heaven" - James Wharton, Jr.

This story starts off with something of a bang: the narrator’s wife is leaving him. They’ve been together for seven years, most of which the narrator (Wendell) apparently spent drinking and not doing things around the house. He pretends to shape up, but she’s determined to see a lawyer. Depressed and drunk, Wendell, agrees to go on a road trip with his hick acquaintance Dove. Yes, it’s a terribly pretentious name, but still.

The whole time, though, Wendell is getting farther and farther away from what he wants, or at least what he thinks he wants: his wife, Mary. Nothing much happens for a good portion of the book. I mean, Wendell finds out that Dove has lots of money hidden in a couch in the back of the trailer they're driving across country with. At one point he tries to bet all the money on a car race but Wendell stops him. Dove gets furious and forces Wendell to take all the money. Throughout the middle of the book there's some random funny things that happen, but for the most part, they just drive and then arrive at the Gulf in Mississippi. So, the middle of the book lacks a bit of drive. The narrator wonders a lot about his wife and has random thoughts. Now, this isn't totally a criticism, because it's a story about a road trip. So it has a lit bit of that "When are we gonna get there?" kind of feel to it.

What do we do about the things that could have been? In this situation, Wendell's wife Mary had a miscarriage. And there is this beautiful part where Wendell really sits down and thinks about what could have been, about what these could-have-beens really mean in the present: "They were not known but they had existed and might have been known, if there had been a way to know them." "But if the baby had at one time been real, then it was still real in one sense, was it not?"

The book is also about facing, or not facing, harsh truths. Wendell runs away when he sees a problem. “Sometimes when you’re at a moment of crisis, the best thing you can do is become absent… sometimes you skip the crisis, and when you come back, the problem’s gone.” But for his wife, the problem isn’t gone. She throws out the old cliché: “things are just not working out.” Wendell insists that anything created and broken can be fixed. For him, it’s a matter of will. And this is true, but Mary doesn’t have the will to try to fix it.

At the end, it all gets wrapped up and Wendell and Mary are back together. But it doesn't feel forced. And it ends up with a burning house and a happy couple, which is fun.

So, overall, a good read. Most of all, there are some great lines. Quotes below:

“Being physically large gives a person the same kind of self-assurance being wealthy seems to give. Whether you can whip any man in the room or pay to have him whipped, it amounts to the same.”

"Hope frightens people because to hope you have to imagine a better world."

I do have to admit that I love the line: "her breasts roosted in the cups of her dress like small white hens." Genious. Well played.

“Depression is when you feel you’ve been robbed and you either can’t do anything about it or don’t have the energy to do anything about it.”

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