Mon November 10, 2008
The Wait, by Frank Turner Hollon
As demonstrated best perhaps in The Point of Fracture, Hollon is capable of convincing, intricate plotting, but those skills are not evident in The Wait.
By Don Noble
Let me begin with a simple description of The Wait. This is a first-person narrative. The protagonist and speaker, James Early Winwood, is telling the story of his life, not to any presumed listener, as in a Joseph Conrad novel, but to you, the reader. The novel seems to be set in the present and seems to be set in the South; the grandfather is called Paw-Paw. Otherwise, who knows?
The novel has an unlikely beginning. Winwood describes his own conception. His mom and dad are in bed and an escaping armed robber/murderer is killed by the police while peeping in their bedroom window at, it turns out, the precise moment. Not exactly the precise moment, given the biologically necessary upstream swim, but why quibble? Life and death mingle in a single moment, so to speak. It happens in hospitals all the time. In a passage both vulgar and daffy, Winwood wonders though, "how much of Bobby Winters do you think drifted through the cracks around the window, floated invisibly into my mother's vaginal canal, and affixed to the embryo, invading like a bad smell caught in the fabric of a boy's underwear? Probably not much?." I agree.
The novel proceeds through more than 60 years of Winwood's life, almost entirely through telling, with far too few scenic showings. It closes, as first-person novels never do, and should not do, with his death described, by him, as a "gentle slide into light." Moby Dick begins "Call me Ishmael," and the epilogue, appropriately, quotes Job: "And I only am escaped alone to tell thee."
The life itself, described over 370 pages is, in a sense, filled with significant events. Winwood marries twice, divorces twice, kills twice, has a daughter and a stepson and a grand-stepson, and tells us that he is a fairly successful stockbroker, although he seems to have no real abilities and I am dubious about how that could be.
Winwood's second marriage seems sensible, but his first is a classic callow youth error. The girl is Kate Shepherd, a poor white girl who lives in a shack at the edge of town with her worthless drunken father. She is a half orphan and clearly headed for drugs and trouble, but Winwood is more than half an orphan. His father committed suicide by parking on the railroad tracks and his mother is unable to demonstrate love in any psychologically useful way. Winwood also has a self-declared savior complex, comparing himself to Jesus. I am suspicious of people who declare themselves to be saviors, as this in my opinion can cloud one's judgment. In The Wait, Winwood's so-called savior complex helps him reason through a cold-blooded murder. A lot of this novel is, like many Hollon novels, concerned with the question of the existence of God. But killing people, for whatever virtuous reasons, is an activity in fact best left to God, not to a possible madman playing God. In having Winwood kill people with malicious premeditation, Hollon loses the reader's sympathy for his main character.
There is also some discussion of whether our lives are in fact predetermined, or formed by the actual events, our experiences. If so, the large events or the small? If you get a flat tire on the way to the airport, miss the plane, and the plane crashes, what does it mean? Well, I think it means you were really lucky that day and the people who died in the crash were not. Or does it mean more? I dimly remember discussions like this in my freshman dorm.
But since the novel is written from beyond the grave, so to speak, Early Winwood knows when he made a mistake, free will or not, and in a most irritating fashion says from time to time "It wasn't possible at the time to understand the woman I knew so well didn't really exist," or "It was the sign of things to come."
Finally, there is nothing wrong with a fictional character taking on the questions of fate, good and evil, and the existence of God. Dmitri, one of the Karamazov boys, does a pretty thorough job of it and, closer to home, Will Barrett in Walker Percy's The Second Coming also explores this question. The problem is that Early Winwood is not intellectually up to the task and his opinions are as uninteresting as the monologue from the philosopher on the next barstool.
Frank Turner Hollon is a practicing attorney in Foley, Alabama and The Wait is his seventh novel. As demonstrated best perhaps in The Point of Fracture, Hollon is capable of convincing, intricate plotting, but those skills are not evident in The Wait.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.