The first chapter of Tucsonan C.E. Poverman's new novel will bowl you over. You won't know what's building till it hits you, and then you might want to take a deep breath before you move on.
Love by Drowning is Poverman's fifth novel. Collections of his short stories have been recognized by the Iowa School of Letters and the Los Angeles Times, and his novels have been commended by such notables as The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, Joyce Carol Oates and Francine Prose. This book falls into his tradition of expertly crafted fiction.
The action takes place in the summer of 2001; it's set between Arizona and coastal Connecticut. Central character Val Martin, once a crack public defender and now a middle-school art teacher, leaves his Tucson home to fly to Connecticut to see his dying father, who has, regrettably, not asked to see him. Previously a high-powered, up-by-the-bootstraps lawyer, Val's father has never recovered from the accidental death of his younger son, Davis, 17 years before, nor has he forgiven Val for not preventing that death.
Shortly before departing, Val receives another in a yearslong series of enigmatic, disquieting postcards—cards on which are scribbled fragments of thoughts and bizarre, seemingly unrelated observations. Because it's Val's wife who picks up the mail, and because they both know the postcards come from an old girlfriend back East, things get complicated at home. And their challenging, dope-smoking, F-word-spewing 14-year-old son further complicates them. When Val catches sight of someone in his Tucson Walgreens who closely resembles the girlfriend, we know the plot is under way. When shortly thereafter Poverman injects a chapter in a different verb tense, different voice, and from an entirely different perspective—hers—we know the novel is not going to follow a predictable arc.
A psychological mystery about attraction, obsession, identity, truth and guilt, much of Love by Drowning occurs in flashback. Val's current life in his Arizona neighborhood, including his marriage to a beautiful and intelligent woman, fatherhood, homeownership and the security of his teaching job provide but a thin protective veneer over an up-ended period in his past.
At the core is a misbegotten relationship that Val had with brother Davis' girlfriend, Lee Anne, in the months after Davis' death. Davis, a gifted athlete whose fierce physical prowess won him games, awards and a multitude of fans, was academically and professionally hobbled by a reading—and perhaps hyperactivity—disorder. Val, the responsible, principled, academically disciplined student, went to Harvard and Harvard Law. Davis shined on the football field at Clemson, but got kicked off the team for indiscretions. He disappeared into the South. Val interned in San Francisco and smacked into the corruptible underside of the legal system. He bailed out of law school.
Love by Drowning feels like it's held together by some unavoidable gravitation of loss—the loss of Davis, of the brothers' father, of emotional and ethical ballast. Characters are sucked into that loss, which is compounded by a mystery to which Lee Anne holds a key.
Poverman develops the character of Val through a collection of steps backward: He no longer boats, though he loved boating; he no longer practices law, though he was talented. At some point, he no longer sleeps. Val's son accuses him of being timid; he just seems to have pulled back listlessly from confrontation. Returning to the East might impel him forward.
Lee Anne's character is developed through ellipses and shards and fragments of dialogue, thoughts and writings. The effect of her chapters is not necessarily to shed any more light on the mystery of who she is or why she's stalking Val, but to actually humanize her for the reader. You don't want to like her, but she elicits some curiosity and grudging sympathy.
This reflects one of the two beauties of the novel: the deft description of psychological imbalance, and the depictions of boating and of the sea, one often complementing the other.
The description of Val's state of mind after Davis' death becomes for the reader a visceral experience: you feel Val's removal from time and place, his sense of dreaming or re-experiencing events. And that's often borne along through water imagery.
More concrete, but no less convincing, is Poverman's description of boats, deep-sea fishing and coastal navigation. They evoke beauty, power and menace, and by themselves are worth the read.
Love by Drowning is a complex and compelling examination of the dynamics of obsession.