Alexander C. Irvine’s The Narrows

There are too many authors in the world. Too many, at least, for me to keep up with. So it is that I treasure being able to write reviews, because I have the chance to encounter those whom I might never have encountered otherwise. Alexander C. Irvine, for example.

I have to confess that I put off reading this book. Hmm, I said, a golem factory in Detroit during World War II. Oh, brother. Then I started reading.

The story of Jared Cleaves, kept out of the military because of a childhood accident that cut the nerves to two fingers on his right hand, does not, on its face, sound terrifically engaging. Jared works as a clay sorter in Building G, subcontracted by the U.S. government from Ford for a top-secret special project. They make golems. His wife Colleen has a better job stripping airplane engines for parts. When the story opens, Colleen is pregnant — not something they had planned, but a strong motivation for Jared to make something of himself.

Since Building G houses a top-secret project, of course there are spies involved. There are also imps, tengu, witch doctors, an ancient rabbi who happens to be a Cabbalistic magician, and the Nain Rouge, the Red Dwarf who was the cause of the accident that damaged Jared’s hand and whose appearance always means catastrophe — eventually.

Jared is just a dumb twenty-something who is trying to make a go of his life under trying circumstances, who is having marital problems, feels lousy because he can’t get into the military, adores his daughter, avoids his in-laws, and has a crappy job with a boss who is just like any other boss — a jerk. If his family history is a bit unusual, well, no one talks about it, so he doesn’t even really know how unusual it is. And he comes dangerously close to losing it all because he can’t leave well enough alone.

I am trying to control a seemingly uncontrollable enthusiasm here. This book is magical — rich, bizarre, poetic, almost completely absorbing. It’s not perfect, but most of any reservations I might have come from surfeit, not lack.

I admire a good wordsmith, those writers whose use of the language is more than proficient, exceptional enough to become a striking element of their work itself. Irvine’s style is spare, uninflected, concrete, and so richly poetic that I periodically had to stop reading, just to give myself a breather, whether I really wanted to or not. It’s not through any pyrotechnics, just through the incredible resonance that the words, mundane as they are, create. I read about people, made-up people, and I like them, I don’t like them, I care or don’t care, I get impatient with them, but it’s been a while since I have become so involved in a character as I did Jared. He is interesting. It occurs to me that doesn’t happen very often in contemporary fantasy — characters are admirable, funny, charming, heinous, but seldom interesting as people. I could go drinking with Jared and have a great time. There is really nothing remarkable about him except a tendency to dream about the Red Dwarf, and if he hangs around for a while with a talking raven who used to be an Indian shaman, well, that’s no more bizarre than the golem project itself.

Trying to find something to compare this book to is more than a little difficult — maybe Jonathan Lethem, but not so dark; maybe Raymond Chandler. The comparison that comes to mind after a little thought is the poet Maurice Manning — that same spareness, the same richness, the same unadorned down-to-earth feeling, the same deceptiveness, in which you are following a clear path that suddenly turns into something else entirely, stops you cold, and makes you think about it.

Irvine has won or been nominated for a slew of awards. I’m not surprized. The Narrows is an amazing book — one of those books that some other reader is going to look at and notice the unresolved issues (a couple of minor ones), the disjunctions (one or two, maybe, depending on your attitude), the draggy portions (again, one or two, depending). It doesn’t matter. I can quibble with the best of them, but this book is way beyond that. You might as well bitch about James Joyce’s punctuation.

(Del Ray [Ballantine Books], 2005)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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