Swimmers in the Sea, a first novel by an absolutely unknown, middle-aged author, published by a small, new press in Winston-Salem, N.C., was not a slam dunk. But I was captured by the blurbs.
Since every year in America hundreds of thousands of books are published, and the number of book reviews is declining, it is sometimes difficult to decide which books to give precious review space. Swimmers in the Sea, a first novel by an absolutely unknown, middle-aged author, published by a small, new press in Winston-Salem, N.C., (even though the author was a Tuscaloosa native, a graduate of Tuscaloosa High School and attended the U of A) was not a slam dunk. But I was captured by the blurbs.
Ordinarily it is a good idea to take blurbs, the rave phrases by other authors on the back of the dust jacket, with a large pinch of salt. Sometimes, the blurbers have not even opened, much less read the book they are praising. There are in fact some fairly famous writers who have announced in public that, as a kind of generosity, they will blurb anything.
But this case was different. Swimmers in the Sea came with praise from three writers I know and respect a great deal, William Cobb, Sena Jeter Naslund, and Silas House, and their remarks made it clear that they had really read this novel and thought it extraordinary.
Swimmers opens with a scene so emotionally powerful that I read it twice just to reassure myself I had it right. The setting is a road near New Orleans in 1960. There has been a head-on collision. The occupants of the Ford are a bride and groom of less than four hours, both dead. In the other car, a Pontiac, are two dying children, Richard and Rachel, and Gail Ebbets, their grievously injured mother. Awake and walking and talking is Cecil, an Army veteran with one arm, drunk, the driver of the Pontiac and the person responsible for this catastrophe.
It is a mistake to oversimplify the theme of a work of art, to reduce it to aphorism, but Strickland has several characters voice this concept, so it is purposeful: everything in your life can change "just like that." This is accompanied by snapping one's fingers.
Cecil, the one-armed driver, is convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sent to Angola.
Gail, his wife, recovers from her injuries and moves to North Carolina with their son Cliff, who had chickenpox and so was not in the car. Their life with Gail's parents is bleak, impoverished, blighted forever by the crash. Gail and her parents raise Cliff, who will be the protagonist of this dark tale, to believe his father was cruel, violent, drunken, worthless . Cliff himself is blighted by his situation and, although he marries and has a daughter of his own, is not a success at work or domestic life.
And one day, 25 years later, in 1985, the call comes. Cliff's father Cecil is dying, begs Cliff to pay a visit to his deathbed, and promises that there is a legacy in it for Cliff if he will come to New Orleans, to the funeral. Cliff drives to New Orleans where he talks to his father on his deathbed. At his father's place, a shotgun house in the Lower Ninth Ward, Don, Cecil's live-in companion, begins to dole out the truths of Cecil's life. From here on out the theme of the novel might be "things are rarely what you think." Cecil, it is learned, had rescued Don, homeless and alcoholic. Cecil was not brutalized at Angola, but learned to draw and was a emotionally insightful portrait painter at Jackson Square. Cecil has always cared about his son. Most of what Cliff thought he knew turns out to be wrong.
The more conventional approach for a novel of tragedy might be the devastating effect on the obvious victims. In this case, Strickland has done a deep, thoroughly believable study of the corrosive effect of guilt and shame on the ones presumably responsible for the tragedy?and how this contagion spreads outwards in circles of pain.