Onward Toward What We’re Going Toward by Ryan Bartelmay

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Reviewed by Victoria

This is a debut novel from a short story writer, and there’s a way in which you can sense the palimpsest of shorter fiction underneath the sweep of this narrative, for all its intermingling of characters and the breadth of its vision. The setting is Middleville near Peoria, Illinois, and the story spans the 50s to the new millenium, following events in the lives of its six main protagonists, troubled and disappointed people all. I’ve already seen inevitable comparisons to Jonathan Franzen – though we have to ask ourselves which young male authors preoccupied with issues of community life in contemporary America are not compared to Franzen – but for me, I felt more like I was looking at the bastard love child of Garrison Keiller and Kierkegaard. There’s powerful, vibrant writing here, an admirable depth of penetration into ‘ordinary’ lives, and a world view that is beyond black, mitigated with caustic humour. I’m not sure I always ‘enjoyed’ this novel, but it certainly left an indelible impression.

Chic Waldbeeser longs for a normal family, as well he might, given the way his father froze to death behind their barn (a suicidal act) and their mother ran off with a family friend. Chic works in a pumpkin processing plant and when the story begins, he’s heading off on honeymoon with his bride, Diane, his first and only girlfriend. Diane singled him out in high school, strutted over in her high heels and claimed him. She was ‘a tomcat. And by that he meant that she pretty much wore him out.’ Things aren’t going too great at the moment, however. At their wedding party, Chic’s sister-in-law, Lijy, offered him a back rub. And Chic, somewhat awkward and unsure what to do, accepted it. Lijy is Indian, viewed with hostility and suspicion in their conservative, white neighbourhood, and married to Chic’s brother, Buddy, an itinerant coin dealer who hardly ever seems to be home. The sensual touch of her fingers provokes a transformative moment in Chic, who has never known tenderness. Lijy assures him that what she offers is no more than a traditional rite in her culture, but Chic falls into what will be a lasting infatuation with her, which will set in motion a long line of consequences down through the decades.

Unsurprisingly, Lijy and Buddy’s marriage will also hit the rocks, but there will be no easy partner-swapping solution to be found. Buddy is as troubled as Chic by the ghosts of their past (though he prefers ranting at them), and his ability to interact with Lijy is as unevolved as Chic’s is with Diane. (When Diane sulks all the way through the long bus journey to their honeymoon destination, ‘He knew he had to do some fancy footwork. He dangled a Korn Kurl in front of her. “Want one? They’re good.”’). But these are characters locked on the conveyor belt of life, unable to envision radical changes for themselves, or unusual solutions. When tragedy strikes Chic and Diane, Diane becomes lost in her sadness, eating for comfort, whilst Chic turns to writing awful poetry.

Interspersed with the story of Chic and Buddy’s lives is that of Mary Norwood and Green Genaro, characters who meet and decide to marry within hours of getting to know one another. Both have been around the block: Mary was once a pool hustler, who was shafted by a parasitical first husband, Green a retired bank teller who decides to try to become a bookie. Once again, difficult circumstances arise, unreasonably challenging ones, and once again, the characters will have to struggle with a lack of inspiration and courage.

This probably makes the book sound unbearably dreary. But it isn’t, because it has a sort of J. D. Salinger ability to narrow the focus, hone the attention, and represent what is utterly ordinary under the spotlight of a fierce literary sensibility. The characters in this story do not have the kind of easy narrative resolutions offered to them that we are accustomed to reading, no deus ex machina arrives to miraculously save them all, no happy twist of destiny. Instead, they do what ordinary people do – they mess up, and dawdle along, procrastinating, self-harming in unexceptional ways, failing to transcend and grow and produce positive maxims that might enlighten us all. It’s also unexpectedly funny; funny in the way that Samuel Beckett is, if you like.

Onward Toward What We’re Going Toward is the kind of novel that will overawe its supporters, for it is deft and clever and weirdly patient, willing to sit with its characters in their foolishness and disorientation in ways that are ultimately deeply sympathetic. It is profoundly existential – aha, I have it now, the comparison that I feel I’ve been searching for since I began it. Ryan Bartelmay might well be the American heartland’s answer to Michel Houellebecq. It’s not an easy book, but it’s an impressive one, and it will be intriguing to see what this author does next.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Ryan Bartelmay, Onward Towards What We’re Going Towards (Corsair: London, 2015). 978-1472115348, 368 pp., paperback original.

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