American Owned Love
A novelist who introduces in the first pages of his novel both a river that turns black and a character named Heart is, it must be admitted, willing to take large risks. Readers, after all, may assume the right to hold the writer to the promise of something extraordinary that such an opening seems to imply. If, in American Owned Love, Robert Boswell has not quite written a novel that can be described as extraordinary, he has succeeded in writing something that has its own value: a novel about the extraordinary, about where and when, and in what relation to the ordinary, it may be found.
Boswell, whose earlier work has consistently received favorable critical notice, sets his new book in Persimmon, New Mexico, not far from the Mexican border. Its narrative concerns include the interactions and tensions among middle-class, mostly white, inhabitants of Persimmon and the Mexicans, most of them illegal immigrants, who live in Apuro, across the river. Apuro is a colonia, the name given to rural, unincorporated communities, usually lacking water and electricity, found near the border. In the hands of many novelists, this material would demand a didactic, heavily politicized treatment. It is to Boswell’s credit that he resists the temptation to reduce the people, places, and situations he is concerned with to the status of problems.
In tracing parallel lines of action, the novel does not offer a clearly defined protagonist, but Gay Schaefer is certainly a major character. It is Gay who at the beginning of the novel discovers that the river running between Persimmon—where she lives with her adolescent daughter, Rita, and her cousin Heart—and the colonia of Apuro has turned black. No explanation, chemical, organic, or other, is ever given for this phenomenon. Gay, at any rate, does not seem to need one. Her delight and excitement are evident as she calls Rita and Heart to share in the moment. Gay is satisfied that what has happened to the river signifies possibility: Now anything can happen. Of course, Gay tends to dwell in possibility much of the time. “Reinvent,” applied to marriage, life, self, is one of her signature words. Still, on this occasion she seems to sense that something extraordinary is in the offing. Whether the expectation is to be fulfilled, and if so on what terms, is one of the questions that organize the novel.
Many people would find Gay’s marital arrangement, in place long before the night the river turns black, extraordinary in itself. She and her husband, Sander, live apart, but with no intention to divorce. Each is free to enter into relationships with others, but Gay and Sander, besides sharing responsibility for raising Rita and otherwise lending each other emotional support, remain sexual partners. Although Sander does not live in Persimmon, the couple gets together frequently for sex. In fact, on the night the river runs black, Gay and Sander are planning to celebrate their wedding anniversary. If Sander should wear a suit, Gay has decided, she will permit him to come into her pink adobe house, a privilege she has never granted him before. Usually, they meet in a local motel called the Desert Oasis. The motel marquee, from which Gay and Sander derive an inordinate amount of amusement, is the source of the book’s title.
Gay conceals from Rita the fact that she and Sander remain married. She fears that if Rita knew the truth about the relationship, she might feel strange about it. It is much better to let Rita believe that her parents are divorced; that, after all, is a “normal” arrangement. Clearly, notions of normal and abnormal, variations of ordinary and extraordinary, are going to prove rather slippery in this novel.
Gay’s marriage provides the novel with a significant portion of its narrative momentum, both forward and backward. The forward momentum is generated by the threat to the marriage represented by Denny, the attractive new basketball coach at the local high school. When, in addition to his good looks and all- around sexiness, Denny proves to recognize an allusion Gay makes to Tennessee Williams (the sort of test she likes to run on men, apparently), Gay finds herself falling. In spite of the openness built into her relationship with Sander, Gay recognizes that what she feels for Denny could mean the end of her marriage. Being Gay, she finds this recognition exciting rather than disturbing or moving. That Denny has not yet fully extricated himself from his own past emotional history, that he indeed cannot, since he has a daughter of his own, complicates the picture.
How the relationship with Sander evolved into its present form is another question with which Boswell teases the reader. Rita probes, Denny inquires, and Gay, Sander, and Heart respond, each, not surprisingly, telling a somewhat different story. Although no one account...
(The entire section is 1992 words.)