Reviewed by Susan Osborne
Jim Powell’s Things We Nearly Knew is a slice of American smalltown life seen through the eyes of an unnamed bartender. I enjoyed Powell’s second novel, Trading Futures, a couple of years back, admiring its narrator’s waspishly funny inner monologue. His new novel is infused with a gentler humour, the themes it tackles much weightier and all the better for it.
Our narrator runs a bar with his wife Marcie on the edge of the small town he’s lived in all his life. He looks after the evening trade, she does the lunches. They’re the perfect professional combination: he knows how to keep secrets, which questions to ask and which to leave unasked; she knows how to interpret the answers. However, they differ wildly in their approaches to life: he wants things cut and dried; she grasps the messiness of it all. One day Arlene walks in, all glamour and sophistication, asking for a vodka martini and whether they’ve heard of a man named Jack. She becomes a regular, if an intermittent one, telling only the stories she wants to tell. Marcie and the bartender are intrigued. She begins a romance with one of the other regulars, more from mutual loneliness than any sense of passion. Then the roguish Franky turns up, not seen for thirty years but barely changed. It seems that Franky and Arlene are made for each other despite his distinctly flexible relationship with honesty. Marcie and the bartender lie in bed at nights mulling it all over but they have their own stories to tell – one which he has been determined to bury but she has not, and another he knows nothing about.
Questioning, speculating, interested in other people and their problems – although blind to his own troubles – Powell’s narrator is the consummate bartender complemented beautifully by the astute Marcie. It’s such a clever device: backstories abound and anecdotes are legion as befits the profession. The story unfolds beautifully through our narrator’s memories as he looks back on the nine months Arlene occupied her bar stool, telling us her tale while slipping in details of his seemingly prosaic marriage, less transparent than he might have thought. Powell’s characterisation is intelligent and perceptive, his writing more striking that I remembered it:
Arlene was someone who invited protection, then declined it when it was offered.
Marcie and I have no secrets from one another. We tell that to each other constantly, so it must be true.
Later, we’d take off the masks we’d worn for the occasion, pack them away, and put on our usual masks the next morning.
Overarching it all is the question how well do we know those we think we know? How well do we even know ourselves? A thoroughly enjoyable piece of storytelling, well turned out in every sense.
Susan blogs at A life in books where a version of this review first appeared.
Jim Powell, Things We Nearly Knew, (Picador Books, 2019). 978-1509842438, 288pp., paperback.
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