Bloomsbury: 232 pp., $25
One pleasure of reading Antonya Nelson is that she brings the careful language and control of literary fiction to uncontrolled, rough-and-tumble lives. Mixing the admittedly bourgeois undertaking of meticulously crafted prose with working class grit is risky — it can devolve into condescension or cartoonishness — but Nelson, like Raymond Carver, strikes a remarkable balance.
In "Bound," she turns her talents to a character study of three women who've crossed class lines. Catherine is a pretty, 40-ish wife in Wichita, Kan.; her husband, Oliver, is a successful local entrepreneur, decades older. Cattie is a teenager who leaves her Eastern boarding school with $500 in her pocket. Tying them together is Misty, Cattie's mother, who grew up poor and, despite their differences, was Catherine's best friend in high school and went on to name her daughter after her.
Catherine had "been brought up by people who asked how you were, what you wished to eat, where you were going when you left. Parents, in short," she recalls of her teenage years. "Misty lived among a different set of adults. They sent her on errands because they were too wasted to perform them themselves. They did not indulge girlish novelties like privacy or squeamishness, a diary or a fear of mice. Misty slept in a sleeping bag, like everyone else. Her earnings, from the Dairy Queen where she and Catherine both worked, went into the community pot."
Misty is seen mostly through the perspectives of her old friend and daughter because she is killed in a car accident in the book's opening pages. One question that drives the novel is how she went from being a disadvantaged teen to an affluent single mother who can afford to send her daughter to boarding school.
As a teen, Catherine was drawn to Misty as an outsider who was free and independent. As best friends, they engaged in heedless drinking, trailer park debauchery, hookups with much older men. While it seemed like dabbling in Misty's working-class world, there was real danger that Catherine only appreciates later.
"To realize how lucky she was to have survived her own incautious past always sent a shudder through Catherine — one red light, one inexplicable pill, one bad man, one unforgivable decision, and everything would have turned out otherwise."
Yet by the time she was out of college, Catherine had returned to the world of the middle class. The texture of her adult life is smooth. She tends her academic, imperious mother, in a nursing home after a stroke; she's the stepmother of a troubled daughter from one of Oliver's two previous marriages (his other daughter won't even speak to her father); she's a cheerleader for the staff of his businesses. She also provides the book's warmth, with her running narrative of memory that are at the novel's heart.
Cattie is more prickly. Like her mother, she is mostly a loner, and being sent to boarding school — for shoplifting, skipping class — didn't turn things around. Instead, with the help of one friend, she slips off campus to a low-end boarding house. There, she eventually befriends a young soldier, a careless falling-together that could easily be the kind of bad decision Catherine is thankful she never made.
This is an elliptical novel, one that cycles, at a slant, through the voices of these women and those close to them (including a beloved dog). For a time, Catherine's marriage takes center stage, as her husband, Oliver, gets his own chapters.
The twice-divorced, meticulous Oliver has a hard time emerging as anything more than a stereotype. Of course, he's having an affair, with a young woman he thinks of only as "Sweetheart," never by name. Of course, he has an ex-wife who hates him; not surprisingly, his daughters loathe him. His anxieties fail to carry the weight of the women in the book, who are much more complex, individual and unexpected.
Oliver does serve a purpose — he's an example of a different kind of bad man. Catherine's habit of dating older men was troubling when she brought a balding, trashy man to her prom — but Oliver is acceptable because he's wealthy, successful. He carries the imprimatur of class. There is just enough space in the text to wonder, however, if Catherine is actually any better off than Misty. She's comfortable, but is she happy? Misty had Cattie; Catherine has philandering Oliver and two corgis.
Past and present are united, in part, by the BTK serial killer, active in Wichita when Misty and Catherine were young and who emerged again in the mid-2000s, when the story takes place. He is not a bogeyman, waiting to jump out of the shadows, but a media presence, a metaphor for Catherine, Misty and Cattie's youthful hubris, for the danger lurking inside the ordinary.
Nelson's skills have been on display in her many short stories published by the New Yorker; "Bound" is her first novel in nine years. It is a work that resists the novelistic convention of having a climax, instead it eddies and returns. A year passes, and nothing much happens, other than the lines of these women's lives drawing together. But maybe sometimes a quiet understanding is enough.