Thirty-three-year-old James Candler is in over his head. Betrothed to a woman he barely knows, stalked by a former client named Lise, shackled with a big, ugly house and an expensive Porsche he doesn’t even like, the reader might urge him to see a counselor, except for one thing: he IS a counselor. He’s a counselor being groomed for the directorship at Onyx Springs Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Center, a cushy private facility in sunny southern California, nestled in the hills against old avocado farms.
The setting is a perfect backdrop for a cast of characters that could rival a Robert Altman film. Central to the narrative is the question: what is sanity? Both the clients and the staff struggle with the everyday and the profound, from leaving the eggs out of a batch of brownies, to dealing with past and potential suicides. Yet TUMBLEDOWN is entertaining, funny and brilliantly written. “She smiled at him, and he imagined kissing her and falling into her mouth and staying there, sleeping like hard candy on her tongue.” And, “Downstairs, he dipped into the living room to say good night to his mother, who was spread over the couch buns like a condiment.”
"...entertaining, funny and brilliantly written.... I recommend TUMBLEDOWN for its humanity, humor and compassion."
Robert Boswell has a knack for illuminating states of mind and being, and the reader is quickly engaged by the characters with all their foibles. Billy Atlas, Candler’s childhood friend, moves into the big ugly house with him and takes a job at the sheltered workshop that was Candler’s innovation. Karly Hopper, stunningly gorgeous, kind and “mildly mentally impaired,” is good at complimenting people but cannot figure out the washing machine. Mick Coury, a young schizophrenic in love with Karly, cheats on his meds and hopes someday to go back to the mysterious self he was before his illness. Maura Wood, a sarcastic, self-harming teen, narrates the goings-on in the sheltered workshop and is dismayed to find herself in love with Mick.
Add to these the former client/stalker Lise Ray, who definitely complicates Candler’s engagement plans. Here’s Lise, who comes to understand that the man she’s been obsessing over is a fantasy: “She felt this break between the first James Candler and the second in her chest, but not as if her heart were breaking, more like the way a hiker who has ascended a ridge only to discover yet another ridge beyond it feels disappointment and resignation, along with a powerful announcement of fatigue.”
Now for the caveats. TUMBLEDOWN is long, and Boswell indulges in some potentially off-putting literary techniques, like relaying two narratives in alternating paragraphs in the same chapter. Late in the 429 pages, he takes some plot liberties so egregious that he feels compelled to comment. “Readers encounter the impossible in vastly dissimilar ways. Some throw the goddamn book across the room and curse the author by name…. Still others keep the faith, shaken yet willing to continue. But every reader wants the impossible acts addressed.” Yes, we do, and we may quibble with the manner in which they are addressed.
Those readers wanting definitive answers or even a clear-cut, straightforward narrative are hereby warned that this is not that kind of novel. That said, I recommend TUMBLEDOWN for its humanity, humor and compassion.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on August 23, 2013