The Coast of Akron, by Adrienne Miller. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 390 pages, $25.
The trouble is that Ms. Miller can write: She has a voice, as well as a fine comic sense of madness and an air of danger that suggests this novel is always about to burst out into the open fields-the dark fields of the Republic, even-and rock and roll to the dementia that’s surely rising slowly … like, well, for all I know, the water level on Lake Erie (spell it “Eerie,” if you like), which is the nearest coast to Akron, Ohio, yet 40 or so miles away from “the rubber capital of the U.S.A.” There, that’s got Akron out of the way, though maybe rubber has more associations or depths than you might expect. In the poetical sense, we may have short-changed rubber.
Forget Akron and rubber, for the moment; hold on to the voice. It’s all you have in this mad and maddening first novel. Try this: “I tossed the Kleenex [Ms. Miller could have shares in Kleenex] on the ground and limped up to the house, the sixty-five room brick Tudor Revival-style house that once gave me such pleasure. The vista, spread out in front of me like this-the insane skyline of the manor house, its crenellation-like teeth, its fenestration-like eyes, the corbelled turrets, the false battlements, the valleys, the soft hills, the sky, the light- used to make me nauseous with love. I used to love this house with a purity with which I’ve never loved anything, except Merit.”
That’s Fergus Goodwyn speaking. I think he owns the house in question, though you learn not to trust much that he says. Still, his income last year in stocks and landholdings was $820,000, so he’s in the business of having parties. Ostensibly, these are meant to celebrate the various sluts his companion Lowell has picked up-that’s Lowell Haven, the great painter-though, of course, all Fergus really yearns for is the return of Merit (a woman, not the cigarette), who is and was Lowell’s daughter, by Jenny. I know, that’s a lot of plot, and Ms. Miller doesn’t really do plot very well, or character, let alone the kind of underlying gravitational pull (call it moral imperative, or sustained interest) that keeps you reading.
But she does have that voice. If you liked “nauseous with love” at the front end of the book, go now to the back end and listen to Fergus, still bleating on in a kind of naggy, daft, swish voice that clings like … smoke in the air in Akron (I’m imagining this-I’ve never been to Akron, and I’m not going now): “Lowell and I were delighted. We were over the moon. I wanted her return to be special. I spent the whole of that Saturday morning whipping up a pitcher of sweet iced tea and a little snack of baked aubergine with Italian parsley and melted Gouda. (Also, I arranged on a plate a party pack of Pepperidge Farm cookies-shorthand for class, I thought in those days; the memory of it now embarrasses me, quite blisteringly so.)”
The “her” is Merit again-come home, Merit, Fergus loves you. It’s an unchanging refrain, and so steady a keening I very much doubt the implication in this second passage that Fergus can or does ever learn anything, whether it concerns class or character. The people in this book are like lighthouses projecting their narrow beam, day and night, comically unaware that the shore is 40 miles away. Is that the point?
Merit is away and with a life of her own, though you shouldn’t get excited. She has a dull, statistically minded husband, Wyatt, whose eyes aren’t quite level and who likes to record the tire tread on randomly parked cars in Ohio. I liked Wyatt, compared with the rest of them. Too bad Merit is already making her way through some indifferent but slow-down steamy love affairs.
I had the feeling now and then that Ms. Miller understands sex and was really quite up for it-in a writing sense.
Better that than all the London stuff. I mean, Jenny goes to London for a time (that’s where she meets Lowell), and I’ve been to London, and London isn’t here in this book anymore than Akron. Better that by far than the painting stuff. Lowell Haven (I was worried when you didn’t say, “Oh, him!”) is supposed to be a famous artist who painted pictures of himself as all of Chaucer’s pilgrims on the way to Canterbury. I never saw those pictures, so I never cared about them, but they do make gestures towards holding the characters together. Was it in fact Jenny who painted them? Are they reliant on Fergus’ photographs?
What’s more interesting, I think, is that all of these people are vain, forlorn liars or crazies. There’s quite a frisson when we realize that the party for Merit’s return-a party at which Fergus expects Henry and Nancy Kissinger (I hadn’t heard her name in ages), Jerry Hall, etc.-will be lucky if it attracts a local podiatrist and a realtor from the past.
Ms. Miller is much talked about (she’s the literary editor at Esquire)-and these days, that’s the trick. Fergus talks about Lowell, and the other characters natter on about each other. Sometimes it even comes close to talk and living. Still, I urge caution. Ms. Miller has lived, it says on the jacket of her book, “around Akron,” and Akron is a stop on her book tour, which may be a first for the city. I hope there will be greeting blimps in the gray sky. I suspect she lives in her head and not many other places, and that’s all right for a writer, and I daresay it has a lot to do with her voice, the thing that kept me going, made me laugh quite a lot, and which had a forlorn mystery all its own. I was enjoying it a little bit (I don’t intend to be quoted on the paperback) until I read the blurb by Dave Eggers, who’s reminded “at once [of] Dorothy Parker, Mary McCarthy and M.F.K. Fisher.” Now I knew Mary Frances, and I see Mr. Eggers here and there, and he always seems decent, friendly and sensible, so maybe he knows Adrienne Miller well enough to guess that one day she’s going to write a novel. She should, with that passive-aggressive voice in her head. Otherwise, she could get a little unhinged. At one point, someone says, “I can smell a self-loather from a hemisphere away.” Me, too-and I hear alarm bells. But for the moment, this isn’t fiction, it’s fictionalizing.
David Thomson is the author of several novels, including A Bowl of Eggs, Suspects and Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes: A Life and a Story.