by Lisa Moore
Grove Press, Black Cat
Life has you in its teeth. You can either submit or you can fight.
Everyone in Lisa Moore’s debut novel, Alligator, is passionate, broken, and resolute. The 17-year-old Colleen outwardly wants to save the earth, inwardly is bent on her own destruction. Frank loses his mother to cancer, leaving him alone in the world. She has extracted his promise to go to college, so he works every night at his hot dog cart to save tuition money. Colleen’s mother Beverly slogs through each day, four years into her sudden widowhood. Madeleine forgoes life-saving heart surgery to complete the pinnacle of her film career. Valentin, the Russian sailor, makes his way in a foreign city with cunning charm and violence.
Moore handles her sizable cast with a deft rhythm. She starts off with the four main characters, three related by blood. It’s a manageable number of psyches for the reader to keep track of, along with back stories, longings, regrets, and current struggles. Then she adds the villain and sends him after one of the four. Five more supporting players enter and leave. By the end, we are left with the four original characters, the villain and one of his victims.
Her character descriptions are a delightful mix of the physical and the emotional. They are efficient and vivid, never slowing the plot. Here, for example, is Frank remembering his dance teacher from childhood:
“Dr. Callahan had one tooth in front that was grey, and the tooth frightened Frank because Dr. Callahan had said it was dead. Everything was in the tooth: all of Dr. Callahan’s fight against despair and his private, mystical arguments with God and the complicated love he had for tap dancing.”
All the characters are living this truth: loss and grief and change are relentless and unmerciful. The worst can—and often does—happen. Even so, wonder is still possible, and sudden insight. Colleen, late in the book:
“I knelt down near the fence and looked into the eye of a giant alligator that was very near the fence. The alligator did not move and did not move. I saw myself kneeling in its eye and I was tiny and fragile-looking in a long velvet tunnel and I wasn’t ever coming back from there.”
Moore uses a technique of weaving as many as five strands of narrative together, toggling back and forth between them in a chapter or paragraph, sometimes even a single sentence. Past, present, and future roll around as if we are inside the character’s head, flitting from one topic to another. It is simultaneously realistic and stylized, illuminating rather than distracting. Each of the characters comes into focus this way: through immediate action, memory, fantasy, inaction, deeper memory, conflict. There is no way to give an example without going into a long set-up of the various threads. You’ll just have to read the book.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that Lisa Moore is also a visual artist, a painter. She has a prodigious ability to notice. I picture her going through the world with eyes wide open, heart scooping up moments, filing them away for later. This book is full of lovingly observed details, used with restraint and purpose. A single object or article of clothing conveys everything about a character. Interiors shimmer with meaning. Landscapes come alive in color, texture, sound, and smell. A few examples:
“There was a whole history of resignation and maxed-out credit cards in her ugly sweater.”
“She’d turned off the radio before sitting down, and the house became utterly silent. She braced against the silence the way a downhill skier might draw breath before starting down a hill.”
“Waves travel a long distance without effort. They curl because they cannot not curl. Because when a wave is punched in the gut it caves. Because a wave is all show and no substance. The curdling spew rushes ahead. Foam scribbling over the sand, a note to say the wave is over. Because the glare on the water is in Sanskrit. . . . if this wave hits her she’s getting all the way in. Like the world exhaling. A hammering home of the truth. A refusal to be a wave any longer. The wave accepts the absurdity of being a wave, but also recognizes the beach for what it is: a reckoning. Who said it would go on forever?”
These passages are never used gratuitously. The one about waves, for example, accompanies a character’s own reckoning. We have felt her struggle to reconcile her tendency to move through life without resistance. And now it has led her to a devastating turn, via an encounter with a man who seems compelled to exploit and destroy people.
Moore’s portrait of St. John’s, Newfoundland, grounds the action and characters in place. The city and its residents emerge as background to the action: the harbor with its connection to the wider world, cruise ships, bar scenes, tourists, arbitration for youthful offenders, a grimy haunted bedsit, logging ancient forests, endangered species, social services, police, foster care, hospitals, an infestation of elm spanworms. The filmmaker, Madeleine, frets about a shipment of Austrian horses that is stuck in transit, iced in before it can reach the harbor. Moore proves herself equally able to paint other settings, as Colleen makes a foray to the Florida swamps.
As I neared the end of the book, I wondered how on earth she would be able to wrap up all the narratives. Their clashes and conflicts had been building, the characters becoming more desperate and driven, the pace picking up. Moore did not disappoint. She thrusts her characters into the worst of it, and brings us in there with them. In the best scene, we waken with Frank from drug-induced unconsciousness into a wild conflagration, with all attendant confusion, smells, and the panic of being burned alive. Every arc climaxes with the others in a very satisfying way, in some cases with a bit of wiggle room left for interpretation and speculation.
The writer, Hubert Selby Jr., whose novels include Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream, once said he wanted to put the reader through an emotional experience. To that end, he worked consciously to stay out of the way in his writing. He believed firmly that the writer has no right to put himself between the people in the story and the reader.
Lisa Moore’s craft has a similar effect. Her language is scrumptious, by turns visual, concrete, lush, ephemeral and suggestive. There is pathos and humor, violence and sex and love. Her range and inventiveness are astonishing. And yet, somehow, her words are not showy. They don’t get between the characters and the reader. We have full access to their emotional lives, are invited in to relationship with them, and, ultimately, empathy.
Reviewed by Julie Gabrielli (visit her at juliegabrielli.com)