By Curtis Smith
Braddock Avenue Books, 2017
In Curtis Smith’s Lovepain, Eli, a social worker and father, pays the price for performing an act of kindness in front of his offbeat son, Mark. What ensues is the exit of his wife, Kate, as well as an uprooting of Mark’s life in general. Smith transgresses cultures—and by way transgresses genres—by contrasting Eli’s life as a single father trying to raise his son with his life as social worker trying to better his client and friend, Zoe. Although Eli struggles through not only fatherhood but also just being a functional person, the book is really about is the relationship between Eli and Mark.
Curtis’ prose is lean. Instead of expanding upon the emotions of his protagonist or indulging too much in his own voice, he abstracts. Eli is an ambiguous protagonist. He’s seemingly a good father he does his best to work with the cards he’s been dealt in his situation. Even so, he’s blurs the line sometimes with his actions; he has outbursts, about four of them, all of which seem to track his development. The same is true of Mark. It isn’t totally clear what’s going on with him throughout the novel. There’s an innocence to Mark that’s both quirky and haunting. Since the novel is written from Eli’s perspective, we get a sense of how it’s effecting him (even if it is ambiguous). As readers, we don’t have the same access to Mark, so we’re unable to truly know the effect that losing his mother has on him.
The ambiguous nature surrounding these two central characters is juxtaposed against very simply, but effectively, constructed secondary characters. This choice highlights the sense of confusion both Eli and Mark are going through. At points these secondary characters even border on cliché but that’s the point of it all; even though Eli has to adapt to a change in his life—that doesn’t mean anyone else does. Eli goes about his life; it’s different but it’s not different. He still has to go to work; he still has deal with people that agitate him, only it’s intensified just a little. The moments in which Eli explodes come from the experience of having to go about his life even when he’s going through such a painful experience.
Smith does a great job of capturing this disconnect by exploring Eli’s internal state. We learn about Eli’s personal history by way of exposition but it doesn’t come across as forced or unnecessary rather it gives us a sense of his current situation and his general lived experience. Smith, however, is careful not to give too much away about Eli. Rather than bluntly explain why Eli feels the way he does, Smith gives us a filtered perspective of the way Eli thinks. This way we actually experience Eli’s perspective, rather than just taking it for granted.
Lovepain is a short, easily digestible, novel, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t sophisticated or complex. Smith isn’t interested in telling an expansive narrative or crafting dense, heavy paragraphs. In fact, it’s not even clear, if he as a novelist, is interested in highlighting himself as an artist. What he is interested in is complicated men and the relationships they have with their sons. He is interested in the aggressions that build up in up our day-to-day lives. And he is interested in the bliss born out of tragedy; the embrace of one’s own family. Lovepain is a powerful work because Eli and Mark’s father-son relationship is explored deeply.–Sandy Wilbur