The Outer Cape
by Patrick Dacey
Henry Holt & Co., June 20, 2017
Amory selected a blade of grass and nibbled at it scientifically.
“I never fall in love in August or September,” he proffered.
“Christmas or Easter. I’m a liturgist.”
Okay, you might say—close, but not actually the worst thing you’ve ever read. But I pick a page at random, wherein lurks the following:
Flirt smiled from her large black-brown eyes and shown through her intense physical magnetism.
The word “flirt” here is not the proper name of a character, as you might have reasonably guessed, but refers to the broad concept of “flirtatiousness.”
One more, for kicks:
The car was obligingly drawn up to a curb, and Amory ran for the boardwalk. First, he realized that the sea was blue and that there was an enormous quantity of it …
Had enough? It’s F. Scott Fitzgerald. Oodles of schmaltzy lines like these cram his clunky, dull, and profoundly unreadable first novel This Side of Paradise. The badness of the book shocks all the more when you realize that no less a genius than Max Perkins read it in manuscript and saw fit to publish it. Your horror will redouble and be spiced with disbelief upon learning that the book was a huge success, rocketing a young Fitzgerald to instant fame in the 1920s. Then your shock and awe will transmogrify into Zen wonder when you recall that the very same man who scrawled these treacly, sophomoric sentences later composed The Great Gatsby, an unsurpassably elegant novel that became an American classic.
I’m not suggesting, simply, that debut novels are tough—which of course they are—but insisting that one’s criteria for judgment of a debut need be altogether different. We should attempt to see what Max Perkins saw. Superb originality may come later; what one should look for in a first attempt is a willingness to risk, to fly, to sputter, indications of the author’s frantic search for a square of ground upon which to found his or her own private literary mythology. Above all, strangeness, newness, confidence, counterintuitiveness, is what you want to see. A reading of Faulkner’s first, Soldiers’ Pay, proves equally as drab as Fitzgerald’s, showing few signs of the genius that emerged, three books later, in The Sound and the Fury. Poor books they may be, but history shows that there is no telling whether such early work may serve as the foundation upon which a tower of brilliance will later be built.
Patrick Dacey’s debut novel will not storm the earth this June. It’s a quiet, workmanlike effort, altogether better than Fitzgerald’s first novel but never itself ascending toward the sublime. He and his publisher may not prefer it that way—everyone wants a hit—but nevertheless it’s a much better state of affairs for Dacey’s creative state of mind, which I believe is formidable, and his future work than they could know. Young authors, more than anything, need time to grow, to fumble and experiment. We owe them that much. Elsewhere, I glowingly reviewed Dacey’s book of short stories, We’ve Already Gone This Far, and had much to say about his original cast of mind and his willingness to go where others refused to go, namely, spelunking alone into the cavernous subterrarium of the neglected American soul. The good news remains the same, that in this debut Dacey continues the important work he began with those stories, using the same tools to expand the drama of a nation in decline and, like a gymnast whirling on the Spanish web, to spin it out into a controlled chaos, contorting what’s there in order to see what shapes it may make.
The novel begins in medias res, with the déclassé Kellys (Robert and Irene) battling their own financial decline and erotic confusion in the rather neglected year, 1990, of a rather neglected decade; the narrative then leaps forward to 2017, shifting perspective to the two Kelly children (Andrew and Nathan). The Buddenbrooksian intergenerational commentary—the way the failures of our forefathers inevitably inform and shape us—crystallizes well, and the drama spurts forth some elegant, somewhat Joycean wordplay, as in a later chapter:
Slowly, the summer slides into autumn. Locals return to the beaches with their dogs; the last of the fruits are sold jarred; signs on the stores along Main Street read, see you again next year … Nathan and Andrew Kelly are now living back home. Irene is sick, but her sickness is physical. Those boys, they have always seemed off. It was their father’s doing. He left them right when they needed their father the most. Are you surprised? Don’t you remember Kelly’s own father, Red? You could hear him wailing on that poor boy all the way from Mulberry to Southbay. But Robert Kelly came back, too. Again? Again. When? Oh, six or seven months ago. Did you hear? I did, but I never thought he’d show his face in this town again. He had one of those home monitoring things round his ankle. Poor Irene. And those boys. Robert, too. Yes, him, too. He deserves some mercy. The Kellys. They’re no different than any other family, I guess. They suffer under the weight of that name.
This is Dacey at his best. Bringing in the Greek chorus of anonymous local commentators to discuss the plight of the concerned characters works well in a contemporary novel like this one, which laments not only the loss of that community itself, but also the alienation of the soul, the past, the family, and a certain loss of reverence for the body itself. Debasement of the body arises as an overarching notion in all of Dacey’s work, the way we sicken ourselves, the way we humiliate the flesh (“her sickness is physical”) as a method of avoiding an examination of our souls.
As I see it, however, Dacey’s unfortunate decision to use present tense nearly throughout the entire novel, as he does in the passage above, represents the major error. Present tense itself cannot be seen exclusively as a bad one—Mansfield, Fuentes, and a few others dabbled in it successfully—but in the case of this novel its use was, I think, fatal. The reason is simple enough. The opening section takes place in 1990, with the book later leaping forward to 2017. But as a result of the chosen tense, as the action moves from then to now, all events and people are dragged along with it, like an expanding collection of tin cans behind a wedding caravan, forcing all things to pile up noisily in the mind. As always in the case of the present tense, nothing terminates, nothing has finality. “He says,” “She goes,” “They cry,” and they all act thus forevermore. The reader loses his will to power, and the imagination takes a curious dive into thinness. Moving along in a narrow stream of accreting places and people and events, the reader finally gives up, acceding altogether to a feeling of placelessness—1990 never actually feels here, actually now, and nor does 2017. In an essay entitled “A Failing Grade for the Present Tense,” William Gass called that mode “soft tough” and a prison of “holy narcissism,” finally castigating present tense in “its limited scope and its absence of mind. It looks; it watches; it sees; it mops.” But it never gives any sense of continuous life—which was, of course, what the unfortunate wielder of present tense intends from the start. This is Dacey risking, flying, and this is him sputtering.
But this kind of slip a readership must have the patience to allow for in a writer’s first novel. The choice was bold, it was perfectly in line with the broader project of the book, but it was at last deadly (thus committing critic Edmund Wilson’s only unpardonable literary sin: a book that of “fails to live”). But far more important than the issue of verb tense, perhaps, is Dacey’s ability to partly redeem his work through a willingness to risk delving into the unremarkable. What do I mean by that? I mean that if you’ve ever found yourself inexplicably annoyed by another high-profile novel that involves miracles, Charles Manson, cities on fire, precocious children, religious persecution—or precocious orphan children suffering in cities on fire during religious wars of persecution—then you’ll know what I mean. The feeling is something akin to an ice cream headache. The reason this kind of book happens more often now than ever seems clear: publishers need a hit and they think the only way to get people to read a new book must be to sort of surprise them into it, to dupe them. Moreover, they no longer want to waste time, as they were once willing to do, cultivating talent, allowing him or her to publish a few middling novels before they bloom. It’s too expensive, too chancy. It takes guts, then, for a young author to go against that grain, to be sober and direct, to follow ordinary people in the ordinary world in which we actually live, and paint a picture of how the making of Americans is shaping up as we enter the increasingly mechanized technoscape of the twenty-first century.
Dacey has a devotion to his people, he wants to depict how they’re fairing in this woebegone spiritual and economic climate, which I would say represents another outstanding aspect of his creative ambitions. Joyce had Dublin. Munro has the primordial black-rock-and-ice of south Ontario. Dacey has his faltering upper-middle class families of Chesapeake through which to channel a range of grander notions. He appears to be disinterested in quirky saga because he’s attempting to do what all serious writer-thinkers have done: to examine home, compose some complex picture of one’s origins, however ugly, however futile. If you’re from the same part of the country as Dacey, and grew up in the same era as the Kelly family in the novel—as I did—you’ll see an imperfect but recognizable portrait of the way we live now. Something about his work has a ghostly, stillborn, empty-new-home feeling, the contemporary commercial hysteria of our world having sapped not only things old of their intrinsic value but things new of their newness. Something about America today has lost it its depth of feeling, its shabby sense of perseverance and majesty, he seems to say. In tidy, economical language and imagery Dacey goes far in depicting that loss. Bravo, I say. I just wish he’d gone further.
And I think he will. I maintain that Patrick Dacey is a writer to watch because I find it rare to see anyone struggling as he does with what we are, where we come from, what’s happening to us as we speak. Writing about the spiritual impact of unfettered American jingoism and corporatization frightens writers because there appear to be no foundations left around upon which to build, no philosophical rungs to take hold of, and there are no discernible values or aesthetic delights to be found in the blight of strip malls, Amazon Fulfillment Centers, and the vast Wal-Mart complexes being erected across rural America. It’s ugly. It’s obscene. And it’s making us ugly and obscene. What to do about it, in terms of how to recalibrate contemporary life to hold onto some quantity of meaningfulness? We must face it. We must write about its personal manifestations in our private lives. We must risk and experiment with it all. It’s a relief to see a new voice—and a talented one at that—giving it the old college try. Only time will tell as to whether this author will fashion his imagined town of “Wequaquet” into a more lasting Winesburg, Ohio of his own.
Tyson Duffy is a writer, editor, and teacher. He’s a Fulbright fellow and a fellow at the NYC Graduate Center Writers’ Institute. He lives in New York City.