I was attracted to this novel because it takes place in my home town, Saratoga, CA. It quickly reminded me of one of my favorite reads, A Confederacy Of Dunces. The protagonist, Nick Staylor, is every bit as self-absorbed and quirky as Ignatius J. Reilly, and sporadically, just as riotous. While Ignatius spars with his mother, Nick fends off the unwelcome intrusion of his grandmother’s voice, a constant companion since he was a child.
The struggle has caused Nick to narrow his life down to the essentials; an unfulfilling job, fast food, Jolt cola, a kitchen full of books, and his beloved historical miniatures. Nick, however, ‘looks good on paper’ to Karen, and she presses for marriage. His petty treatment of her eight-year-old son dooms this prospect early on, and forces his return to the town of his past, and the accompanying memories.
His teenaged neighbor, Carla, has plans for her life, and drafts the misanthropic Nick as an adjunct to her success, precipitating a one-sided love, angry neighbors, a road trip, and revelations aplenty. You may think the sleepy suburb of Silicon Valley a mundane setting for the unusual relationship story, but it turns out to have all the right elements for Nick’s musings. No New Orleans patois here, but the local haunts (some no longer there) enrich the whip sharp dialog between the misfit and his affluent neighbors, and make the long read worthwhile.
Every generation, it seems, has its back to the land movement wherein young couples eschew the bustle of the city for a simpler, rural self-sufficiency. This was particularly true in California in the sixties, I think, and this is the setting for Max Gordon’s debut novel, The Hayfield. Frank and Barbara, their son Billy, and one more on the way let go of their busy life in San Jose and buy a house with land enough to grow hay in Northern California. Although Frank left a steady job as a truck mechanic, he is no neophyte to the ways of the country. In fact, he takes to the tasks confronting him in setting up his new home readily, seeming born to it. That doesn’t prevent things from going horribly wrong, however, and they do so immediately.
While running through the new house on move-in day, Billy knocks his mother down, which turns out to be the precipitant in the deterioration of the marriage. The details of living a rural life are described artfully, and shows Frank’s command of his environment. Contrast that with his complete lack of understanding about what is going on with those he loves, and you have the basis for a fine relationship story.
The novel is focused through the lens of the environment, revealing Frank and Barbara’s relationship as they attempt to meet the demands their chosen life places on them. The mundane, but graphic details of things like dressing a rabbit, and building a fence are much more than they appear. A particularly fine passage about their confrontation with a pack of wild dogs strips away the last of the pretenses about who they are, and further erodes the marriage.
Frank becomes a hay broker to make ends meet, and his time on the road and association with the rural denizens, and the details of their daily lives, give life and breath to the story. It is a fine read.