Tumbledown: A Novel

Tumbledown: A Novel

by Robert Boswell


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"A winning ensemble cast of therapists and patients make stabs at sanity in Robert Boswell's mordantly funny novel Tumbledown." —Vanity Fair

"A complicated, nuanced look at human experience and the insights into that experience contributed by people of varying kinds of intelligence." —The Washington Post

"A moving and often darkly hilarious meditation on sanity." —Houston Chronicle

"A deft twining of irony and insight on nearly every page . . . Tumbledown wryly mines the heartache in emotional disturbances, some present from birth and the rest brought on by the business of living." —The New York Times

"Within a suspenseful plot spiked with love triangles and flashbacks, Boswell renders each complex psyche and scene with magnificent precision and penetrating vision, fine-tuning our definitions of disorder and healing and deepening our perception of what it is to be normal, what it is to be human." —Booklist (starred review)

"Like a funnier One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, this story focuses on a therapist and his wild yet well-meaning patients, bumbling through life, trying to make sense of the world and one another." —O, The Oprah Magazine, Ten Titles to Pick Up Now

"Boswell can write the most refreshingly old-fashioned kind of narrative: one that evokes deep sympathy for all its characters . . . All the novel's characters know that in adulthood they're supposed to settle for ‘what could pass for a normal life. Maybe it was a C- sort of life, but that was a passing grade.' Still, they want to keep hope, wonder and love in their lives . . . Without a whiff of sentimentality, he shows exactly how elusive such balance can be." —The New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555976866
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 09/02/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 456
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Robert Boswell is the author of eleven books, including The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards. He shares the Cullen Chair in Creative Writing at the University of Houston with his wife, Antonya Nelson. They live in Houston, Texas; Telluride, Colorado; and Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Read an Excerpt


A Novel

By Robert Boswell

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2013 Robert Boswell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-076-5


There are yet states of being that have no name, anonymous human conditions that thrive at the periphery of powerful emotion the way bedroom communities manacle a city. James Candler and Elizabeth Ray reside in such a place. Separately. They are new arrivals. Candler showed up the last week of January, purchasing a big stucco house snouted by a two-car garage. A few weeks later, Elizabeth Ray paused in her pale subcompact to eye his residence. Neither the ugliness of it nor its enormity could dissuade her. She circled the block several times to look it over. Around the corner, she parked at an apartment complex. Her studio-with-balcony rented by the week.

The subtle pleasures of suburban life would prove difficult for Candler to seize. Shoving the mower around his front lawn left him without the humblest sense of accomplishment: what could he do in that yard? The elementary school down the street spawned a daily parade of idling station wagons and SUVs, a surprisingly civil motorcade that left gaps to protect the right-of-way at every household drive, but the polite convoy struck Candler as a funeral procession for the ozone layer. He managed to locate a decent local restaurant, a steakhouse that also served Mexican food, but it played CNN day and night on an elevated screen the size of a motel mattress. "I don't suppose you could turn that off," he asked. The waiter, a Sinaloa transplant who walked past Candler's house every weekday morning, holding hands with his fourth-grade daughter and practicing English according to her strict instructions, smiled and shook his head, saying, "People like." Even the spitting applause of sprinklers oppressed Candler, reminding him of waking as a child to a snow-covered television screen and the disturbing sense that he was sleeping through his life, and it would soon be time to die.

For Elizabeth Ray, it was an entirely different place. She looked for Candler — or evidence of him — when she visited the coffee shop, either of the bars, the grocery, the hardware store. Any aisle she turned down could reveal him, any booth might hold him. Every niche and corner resonated with the possibility of him. If the man in line ahead of her at the bank did not turn his head, he could be him. Every day she imagined the smallest details of his life.

Meanwhile, he did not know her — or thought he didn't.

People encounter life in vastly dissimilar ways. Some insist their days are orderly and unchanging, vessels on a slow-moving assembly belt, each identically filled by invisible hands. For others, the days are relentlessly complicated and unpredictable, as different, one from another, as patients waiting to see a therapist. But for everyone there comes a day when the filling no longer fits the vessel, when the therapist finds himself pouring out his heart to the patient, when air is indistinguishable from water and out is the rough equivalent of in, a day when even the voice of god carries a dubious tremor.

Such days are worthy of our attention.

Informally, the place was known as Liberty Corners. It consisted of a few housing developments, some old farms and roadside businesses, and a handful of fashionable new concerns — wine shop, bistro, gym with machines and mirrors. Elizabeth Ray's apartment was on the third floor and faced the two-lane blacktop known as Liberty Highway. James Candler's house was on a street distinguished by sidewalks of red paving stones. He worked at a residential treatment center in Onyx Springs, an easy commute south on the two-lane and east on the interstate. The drive she made to La Jolla was longer and laden with traffic. Her move to the Corners had nothing to do with convenience.

On this particular day — the day James Candler would come unhinged — he was up earlier than usual, his morning beginning with the smell of brownies in the oven, a dripping spatula in his mouth, and an uncertain feeling in his gut that he was about to do something devastatingly stupid. He had woken to this feeling for several days now. Elizabeth Ray (she called herself Lise these days, pronouncing it like a rental agreement) remained asleep. The clothing boutique where she worked did not open until noon, and she slept best in daylight. She was dreaming that her neck had sprouted an extra head, identical to the original except for its sneer and the authority evident in its skeptical eyes. The heads vied for control of her body. A recurring, unpleasant dream. In a short while her mind would insert itself as a disembodied voice, reminding her that it was not possible to have two literal heads, and all she needed to do was change her position in bed to end the dream. This all-knowing voice was new, a manifestation of her waking self in the world of her sleeping self.

Oven time required: twenty minutes. Candler washed the mixing bowl and sponged off the counter before heading for the shower. The year was 2008, the month April. James Candler was thirty-three years old. He was a little paunchy, but he didn't even own a scale. Women were attracted to him. He was liked at his job and had friends dating back to high school. If the rumors flying around the Onyx Springs Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Center were true, he would soon become the youngest director in its history. This fact pleased him and worried him and would contribute to his undoing.

Lise Ray had just turned twenty-seven. She was an only child. After some years of estrangement, she was close to her parents. By means of an online social network she had reconnected with friends from high school, all of whom were married, still in Missouri, saddled with demanding children and husbands bent on disappointing them. They openly envied her freedom and referred to California as if it were a supernatural realm. Lise had constructed this life out of the tundra of her previous life. Every day she let herself feel astounded to be free of that old life.

Down the hall of Candler's oversized house, a friend whose marriage had failed slept fitfully, having sought out Candler in his time of need. One of his clients — a schizophrenic boy as fragile as a whisper — had revealed that he was in love with another of Candler's clients, a beautiful and damaged girl who, Candler suspected, was living with a man. What to do? What to do? He was facing a controversial promotion, could not afford his combined house and car payments, hardly knew the woman he was engaged to marry, could barely keep up with his clients' complicated lives, and had just signed on for his fourth credit card. Tick tock, his head was rocking. He wiped down the shower stall and sprayed it with cleanser. He squeegeed the shower door. The more uncertain his mental state, the cleaner his bathroom.

Candler was the only man in his office who didn't just stop at the Donut Hole and grab a box of the glazed when it was his turn to supply the goodies. The women in the office baked their own: berry-stuffed muffins, pastries with patterns of icing that changed color and design according to the season, and on one occasion, Kat — a technician on the evaluation floor and Candler's sometime lover — brought homemade baklava, the crust as delicate as the eyelids of exotic birds. Candler made a point of matching their efforts. Or at least approximating them. After one wretched attempt at baking from scratch — a doomed and debasing carrot cake — he resorted to boxed products. (The miserable cake had never solidified, a brown mush that sloshed in the Pyrex bowl like an aquarium model of a sewer.)

How Elizabeth Ray first met James Candler was a story she had told a thousand times, but only to herself. Candler did not know the story. It was only a story from her point of view. There once was a girl with two heads, she might begin, plagiarizing her nightmare, and the stupid head had taken charge. Usually she was in bed, the room dark, and she could not sleep. She never began with the same sentence. There once was a girl who aided the gruesome monsters in her own abduction and then volunteered her body for their grotesque experiments. She had grown up reading science fiction, which colored her narratives, but the essential plot was always the same: the blind girl in the forced labor camp is not only freed but made to see, the bump-n-grind slave girl in a society that has discovered how to turn sex into electrical power is whisked away in a forbidden non-sex-fueled vehicle whose fearless driver detours to let her see the darkened windows of her former master's house. And so on. Bad movie plots for the kinds of bad movies that had never cast her, in all those years, not even as an extra.

Candler dressed himself in a gray suit and blue tie. No one else in his office wore a suit to work. One of the perks of living in Southern California, Clay Hao had told him, no costume required. Hao was the senior counselor in their office — their pod, according to the Center's guidebook. Candler's pod had four counselors, three techs, and a secretary. The Center had a total of eight pods. Of the thirty-two counselors and eight psychologists eligible to apply for the position of director, twenty-seven had more seniority than Candler. Yet he had accelerated past all of them.

The administrative board had chosen Candler to be the Center's new chief. The official interviews were still weeks away, but the real search had already taken place. It had not been pleasant. The board members had taken a meddlesome, prying, semi erotic interest in his private life. They were a gray-faced bunch with concretized features, and their attitudes matched their outward appearance — gargoyles intent on finding another of their species. Three of them had come to Candler's house bearing a Boston fern. A housewarming gift, they claimed, meandering through his rooms, fondling his knickknacks, even swinging open the refrigerator door. Except for its size and a few upscale pretensions, the house was a conventional tract home. Candler had gotten a deal on it — what had seemed like a deal — and the board members liked that he had not moved to San Diego to live the bachelor life. They even appreciated the size of his residence, believing the extra rooms were meant for a family. They were perhaps the only people who approved of his car. Debt, noted one gargoyle, is a stabilizing influence.

Sometimes Lise told the story in the first person: I found myself on an alien planet (by which she meant Los Angeles) and longed to become one of the native creatures (she'd moved there to become an actress) even as they tortured me (a thousand auditions and never a part). She was three years distant from that alien world, having escaped to a neighborhood in San Diego known as North City. She had rented a garage apartment not far from the boutique where she worked — close enough to walk. Now her commute was an honest forty minutes; yet she believed the move to Liberty Corners was every bit as necessary as her flight from L.A. It had even changed the way she told the story. She strove now for realism: There once was a girl who mistook the roar of hell's ovens for the noise of a freeway.

Well, something like realism.

Candler buttoned his shirt — the odor of baking brownies filling the house — and lashed his tie to his neck. He had risen early to stake out the damaged girl's house. He needed to know whether she had a lover. She might be putting herself at risk. She might be putting the boy who loved her at risk. Even as he was unraveling, he was trying to do right by the people who depended on him.

He returned to the kitchen and what he saw baffled him: two eggs on the countertop, perfect in their white ovalness, like thought bubbles from another dimension. Was it possible — it couldn't be possible — but was it at least conceivable that he had forgotten to put the eggs in the brownies? He could see himself expertly cracking the eggs on the rim of the bowl and dropping in the yolks and whites, but where then were the emptied shells? And since when was he an expert at cracking eggs? He stuck his hand inside the maw of the garbage disposal, but the kitchen timer — shaped like a tomato for some reason — rattled and he freed his hand to stop it. The oven's hinges creaked. The brownies in their transparent pan were the appropriate color and, unlike the carrot cake, looked quite solid, but they were as flat as a paperback novel.

It was a shabby office in a shabby building on the same shabby L.A. block as the bar where she worked. But the man himself, the counselor she was required to see, was young and in a suit, and his part of the office — not even a room, just partitioned space — was clean and had that spotless smell. He did not hide behind his desk but sat directly across from her. He was not handsome, exactly, but he was unexpected. There was something about the way he paid attention, how he moved his limbs. She wished she had gotten herself up a little.

At that time in her life, she called herself Beth Wray. By adding a simple consonant, the homely Ray became the exotic Wray, like the actress in the palm of the giant beast. She had chosen the name when she was seventeen. Beth Wray sounded like Death Ray, and that was the effect she intended to have on audiences: a fatal device from the conceivable future.

This was the stuff she planned to tell the counselor — how preposterously young she had been when she moved to California, how juvenile her fantasies. Her indulgent parents had let her skip the boredom of sixth grade for the boredom of seventh grade, which meant she was always the youngest and most susceptible in any classroom, and wouldn't it be ironic if that were the reason she had fallen into this life? That intelligence was the root cause? Such was the sort of commerce counselors expected, but this one wouldn't let her talk about any of that.

"What brings you here?" he began.

"Probation requirement," she said flatly.

"That's like telling me a taxi brought you here."

She actually had taken a taxi from her apartment, and for a moment she indulged the idea that he was psychic. (She was all of twenty-three when she entered that immaculate office, not far removed from Death Ray.)

"The legal system has taken you by the shoulders and seated you across from me," he continued. "We both understand that. But what's going on in your life that people can force you to do things you quite obviously don't want to do — such as show up at nine in the a.m. to talk with the likes of me?"

The nameplate on his desk read James Candler. He looked right at her and did not look away. His eyes were the green of spring leaves. His eyes were the green of a forest pond. His eyes were the green of a traffic light instructing her to go, get on with it, move.

Over his car's leather seat — Candler drove an absurd car — he placed a folded towel, setting the warm pan of brownies on top of it. Eggs or no eggs, they would have to do. The garage door climbed in clanking segments, revealing an indecisive spring sky the romantic color of candle smoke. He could not say why he owned this car. John Egri, the outgoing director, drove a sleek black Corvette, a vehicle he treated with such care that Candler had actually seen it only once, but he heard about it frequently. Candler had not envied the Vette until fate stuck its wet nose in his crotch. The parent of a bipolar teenager, strapped by the expense of enrolling his daughter in the Center, decided to ditch his car payment, and Candler unaccountably bought the metallic red Porsche Boxster. Something about Egri's Corvette and the opportunity for a bargain led him to purchase it, trading his pickup as part of the transaction.

A bargain, but he had to reallocate monthly expenses from his checking account to his credit card or he couldn't pay for the thing. He economized, quitting the gym, dropping cable television, forgoing the newspaper, shifting the thermostat out of the comfort range. All of which might have been worth it if he had liked the car, but he quickly discovered that he had no affinity for the beast. It seated two, unless someone was willing to crawl into the tiny space behind the seats, and came with a Tyvek cover, a giant windbreaker to be daily stretched over its glistening body, a chore roughly as difficult as dressing a dead man. Egri advised him that he was adding needless miles by driving the car to work. To which Candler responded, "How am I supposed to get there?"

Beth Wray didn't have a satisfactory answer for his question. He wasn't interested in her family, her youth, her past, her present job, how she was feeling, or the immediate circumstances that forced her to see him. He wanted to know what really brought her to his office. He was so insistent, she thought about the boy who had taken her virginity in the back of his VW van, that adamant little prick of his no larger than a wine cork.


Excerpted from Tumbledown by Robert Boswell. Copyright © 2013 Robert Boswell. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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