Friday, June 30, 2017

Review: The Blue Streak

The Blue Streak The Blue Streak by Ellen Lesser
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the last of Ellen’s published works so far, though word comes that she has a new collection of short stories nearly finished.

On the one hand, this is impressive page by page. In this story of Danny, a recent college graduate who, having ruined his shoulder through over-training, has neither his near Olympic-level swimming nor any other clear plan. He’s treading water after a time as a “blue streak” in the pool, and he’s irritated his go-get-’em father in the process. Then, in the opening pages, his father dies.

What follows is a meditation on self and family, with many excellent set pieces. We get the note-for-note rendering of the family coming together and dealing with its grief, and we get close-ups of one family member after another.

The best of this comes in the details, and, as someone only a bit younger than Ellen, I found myself squirming at the all-too-close-to-home, warts-and-all rendering of a Jewish family. Since I’m scheduled to work with Ellen later this summer, I paid particular attention to that level of rendering. It’s clear she has real chops, and I hear from others she brings that same eye as a reader.

At the same time, this probably doesn’t “move” as well as I’d like. That is, its individual scenes are all solid, but they don’t always connect to one another as effectively as I’d like. (This is something I struggle with in my own writing.) We get an opening scene where, in a laundromat, Danny meets a young woman and perhaps makes a connection. Except for a quick glance back at the end of the novel, though, the scene has no staying power. The woman falls out of the novel.

In a similar vein, we get what seems a sub-plot about the medical examiner misplacing the father’s body. In a novel so steeped in realism, it seems gratuitous, a plot device to extend the general discomfort of the situation. [SPOILER: There’s also a plot twist where we learn that Danny has been cut out of his father’s will, a quirk of anger that we know doesn’t represent his father’s true feelings but that exacerbates the totality of Danny’s loss. Bottom line, it doesn’t need to be there, and it distracts from the real drama of Danny coming to grips with what it means to be his own parent.]

There’s a strong story in all of this. Danny is dealing with the end of his father’s life, the end of his career as a swimmer, and the beginning of a new kind of responsibility. At its best here, this novel makes that difficult crossroads a real drama. Danny doesn’t have it easy, but novels don’t happen in “easy.” They happen when someone like Danny has his eyes opened to a (detailed) world that doesn’t square with the one he anticipated.

It’s a pleasure to read this for its skill, but it seems less urgent today than I suspect it did when it came out.

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