The divide between memory and fantasy, the past’s reality and what the mind invents, is supposed to be clean, straight and deep. Then is then, now is now, and life gets on with itself. If a sudden, heart-ripping death occurs, that trough is a handy place for burial: not for the body but for anger, guilt, grief, accusation and self-recrimination, hatred and smashed hope.
Some families are more successful at this than others, though, no matter what, hidden things fester. Like the wide-open spaces that still punch up the outlines of fiction for many American writers (home is left, home is returned to, a lot of emotion is expended coming to terms with both ends of the long journey), the keeping of secrets is good for shaping stories. What’s a home without a basement?
In Goodbye Lemon, Jack (short for Jackson) Tennant comes from a family where silence has been cultivated more avidly still than the indestructible roses in his mother’s garden (“a time capsule of landscaped anguish”) back in the faux-rural hunt country of suburban Maryland, and polished to a metallic gleam as impenetrable as the shine of the Jaguar E-type that his father, Colonel Tennant, sir, keeps garaged away against any sharing with his two sons.
But Adam Davies is determined to muddy the distinction between what once happened and the tricks your mind plays when you push the memory aside. Where there are now two Tennant sons there were once three, the middle child a 6-year-old named Dexter who drowned one summer vacation evening in Lake George when his mother was shopping, his brothers were following their usual whims, and his father wasn’t saving him. Dexter’s parents don’t just bury him, they erase every memory and avoid any mention.
Jack, the youngest, flees eventually, first aiming for a piano scholarship to Juilliard that his father negates with physical violence. Later he makes it to graduate school in New York, only to self-destruct with a little help from a stalker student. Spiraling his way downward, he takes a part-time college-teaching gig in “Boll Weevil, Georgia,” and supplements that with bottom-feeding work at a homeless shelter. His ray of hope is his girlfriend, a staff social worker at the center who’s on her way up out of a far tougher background than his. But now the Colonel has gone and had a stroke that results in Locked-In Syndrome, a total and usually fatal paralysis of the body that imprisons the mind within. Jack heads home for the first time in 15 years.
Home is left (Jack calls it “The Suicide Palace”) and returned to.
Jack is an older, sadder, schlumpier, more failed, more emotionally raw version of Harry Driscoll, the disastrous preppie publishing gofer in The Frog King, Mr. Davies’ debut novel. Jack’s brother Pressman is stewed in alcohol (in The Frog King it was heroin), and so is the Colonel, though the father is an aboveground zombie of chilly, Great Santini–like rectitude, while his older son, who lasted all of two weeks of a freshman year on a designated golden-boy scholarship to a college in Northern California, has literally hit rock bottom, a “vice frigate” holed up in the cellar with occasional forays to the local alkie dive and its bad company.
There are other repetitions between Mr. Davies’ first and second novels: tiny but assertive girlfriend, check; horrendous medical condition conveyed in clinical, nightmarish detail, check; soft spot for pre-adolescent waifs, check; fireflies as metaphor, check; obsession with obscure vocabulary and ingenuity with transforming verbs into nouns, check, check.
The last is particularly pronounced once Jack falls off the wagon thanks to good old Press, Jack’s increasingly uncertain feelings about his father and a hereditary involvement with alcohol that has hidden complications up its seersucker sleeve. The more sodden the psyche, the more scintillating the interior monologue. This makes for winsome prose, but how it lines up with the solid, incontrovertible realities that Mr. Davies requires for the pivot of his plot is another matter. If only Jack’s verbal pyrotechnics would explode in lucid moments and not when he’s incapacitated by a binge.
But that would ill serve Mr. Davies’ other goal, which is to illustrate—as he already did in The Frog King—that memory doesn’t just work in mysterious ways, it’s also an excuse to write a book. Both Harry Driscoll and Jack Tennant unburden themselves in the first-person singular on paper, it turns out. It’s a telling tribute to the value that Mr. Davies places on books as living organisms and fluid artifacts, but once would have been enough. In Goodbye Lemon, where a Ouija board, a Dynovox machine, a high-school yearbook and the Bell Atlantic Greater Baltimore Metropolitan White Pages also suggest that words speak louder than actions and volumes speak volumes, the billboard-quality preoccupation with the meta-literary wears almost too thin to carry the story.
But at least there is a story here, and that’s a sign that Mr. Davies’ talent has matured. He’s learned how to twist a plot and spring a surprise; his writing is the more grown-up and complex for it.
And he’s also deft enough to let Jack be funny. It’s hard not to like a follicly challenged WASP who describes what’s left of his bed-head hair as an “Angro,” or who leads his brother to liken the pickled beets their mother served them as kids to the architecture of Frank Gehry.
Moments like these make up for the movie-deal outcome that Mr. Davies may have had in mind with the book’s wrap-up—the epilogue to Goodbye Lemon is more suited to the Y.A. market. It’s sticky with unprocessed romanticism.
Adam Davies is still figuring out where not to lay it on too thick. The ground, though, is evening out beneath his feet.
Celia McGee is book critic who lives in New York.