Published by Graywolf Press
Publication date: August 6th 2013
Tumbledown by Robert Boswell largely takes place at the Onyx Springs Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Center, a residential facility where James Candler is a counselor. Through the novel we meet the individual patients James works with, the other counselors, his boss, his sister and his best friend. The novel is an ensemble piece of fiction in that almost every character has an equal voice but Candler is the linchpin and where everything begins. Boswell explores the emotional makeup and backstory of this full and varied cast making for a novel replete with drama.
Mick, Karly, Alfonso, Rhine, Maura and Vex are patients at the center with varying degrees of emotional and mental disorders. They all come together at a work program that teaches them job skills and at which, once they reach a certain level of proficiency, they can leave and work for the manufacturer fulltime. It’s one of the innovative programs designed by Candler that makes his boss choose him for his replacement as director of the center. Flush with the knowledge of this almost certain promotion, Candler makes some precipitous decisions, namely buying a Porsche and a large new house. He also gets engaged to a woman currently living in London whom he’s known for less than a month. The problem is that not everyone at the Center sees Candler in the same glowing light as his boss. Another counselor, feels
“…deep down she thought him narcissistic and bland, like some tepid soda that had lost its fizz. Oh, he was okay, but his roots were so shallow that one good breeze would knock him over.”
This insight is not far from Candler’s own opinion of himself but instead of pulling back, his judgment becomes even more impaired, extending to racing a Mustang on a morning rush-hour freeway and deciding his unemployed best friend, Billy, would be a good manager of the work group. The Mustang crashes with no injuries, Candler drives on and Billy is good with the group right up until he decides to marry Karly, who happens to be stunningly beautiful but with the mental and emotional levels of a preteen girl.
Tumbledown is ambitious in its scope and even its format. In the opening chapter the focus switches by paragraph between a birds eye view of Candler’s life and that of Lise Raye—a patient he saw once in another city years ago, who has followed him and is now patterning her life in such a way that they will meet. Basically, a stalker. It also shifts from the present to the past at the same time, making it difficult to get a grip on where the importance lies in the story. After this chapter Tumbledown falls into more traditional lines but then a quarter of the way through in Part Two Boswell changes from chapters to days to cover the narrative for two weeks. The purpose of this device is not clear as it does not apply brevity to the narrative nor is it repeated in the remaining four parts. These narrative changes make the novel one that that needs to be digested carefully but in the final pages Boswell goes even further by intermixing alternate endings that change with the paragraph.
Unusual formatting choices aside, Tumbledown is a wry look at the challenges of life itself for everyone from the approaching middle-age crowd, to the strivers, the young, and the lonely and foolish. Boswell makes the characters sparkle in their oddities, humor and pain, making the extra layers and flourishes feel extraneous. Their humanity is enough.
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