Friday, January 14, 2011

The Fates Will Find Their Way, by Hannah Pittard

Nobody knows where, exactly, Nora Lindell disappeared to, but the boys from her high school know one thing for sure: She’s not coming back.

The first pages of Hannah Pittard’s exquisite debut novel lay out all of the clues at their disposal. She went missing on Halloween — that much they agree on. But every other memory conflicts with someone else’s, with each boy absolutely positive that his is the correct version. A bus station is mentioned. Then an abortion clinic. Hot dogs. Movie theatres. Pay phones. Two of the boys swear they saw her climb into a stranger’s Pontiac Catalina. Another, feeling excluded, claims to have had sex with Nora the month before.

Before long, the departed 16-year-old has become a cipher, a repository for all of the boys’ repressed desires, feelings and fears. Not so much the sexual ones — they’re pretty upfront about their constantly redlining hormones — as those that run deeper, more elemental. Nora becomes a stand-in for everything that never was, but maybe could have been, had things worked out a little differently.

The Fates Will Find Their Way is narrated by all of the boys at once, in the first-person plural, so the reader is never quite able to ascribe these feelings to any one in particular. Then again, there’s no need to. Because while their specific circumstances may vary, these kids never grow out of the fundamental group mentality that Nora’s disappearance creates; even well into adulthood (and marriage and fatherhood, for that matter) they still get together, late at night, and try in vain to turn their handful of battered jigsaw pieces into a complete puzzle.

Put another way, it’s a book about the particular eerie stillness of the suburbs — where you talk, and talk, and talk, just to fill the space.

Pittard, an American who divides her time between Charlottesville, Va., and Chicago, writes at a pace that’s both restless and completely organic. From this anonymous blob of adolescence emerges nearly a dozen distinct characters, each with his own attendant hang-ups and obsessions. The chapters, in turn, ebb and flow as these memories are re-conjured for what must be the thousandth time — the kinds of stories that are best told, wistfully, from the safety of a bar stool.

Yet it’s in the fine details that Pittard’s judgment rings truest. There’s very little morbidity here, or even that brand of black humour that hurts your throat even as you laugh. She’s a sentimentalist, and Fates is an elegy. Pittard’s particular gift is for brief, telling details that deepen, rather than caricature, her characters. Proof of one boy’s strangeness is the fact that he always took a sip of chocolate milk before taking his pills, instead of the other way around; another names all of his pets after himself. After calling their sons to talk about a shamefully selective obituary in the town newspaper, the mothers hang up, in order to immediately “begin work on their own obituaries, page-long affairs that left nothing out, got everything straight.”

Roughly one quarter of the book is devoted to Nora’s life after disappearing — or, at least, the overlapping potential lives the boys imagine for her. Sometimes she’s fleeing a rapist, hiding under a pile of leaves in the forest. Sometimes she’s living a tranquil domestic life in Arizona with a stoic Mexican cook. And sometimes she’s in Mumbai, falling in love with a female henna artist. (Why make Nora into a lesbian? “Simple. Because we are men” — and since none of them got her, no man will.) In each case, Pittard slyly projects the boys’ inner thoughts onto the grown-up Nora, and, as we eventually discover, each scenario is built off of at least a small nugget of fact.
If there’s a quibble to be had, it’s that the title, as well as the Virgil epigraph from which it’s taken, tries to make the novel seem slightly more grandiose than it really is. It’s unnecessary. Smallness can be a virtue, and The Fates Will Find Their Way is itself excellent proof.

The book’s underlying message is a gentle but insistent indictment of these boys/men. By the time they hit middle age, they’ve been indulging their nostalgia too long, and in the end, for the wrong reasons. When they remember Nora, they don’t see a girl cut down in the prime of her youth. They see a potential wife, someone who might make them look good by proxy. Their children, too — whom they’ve raised with other, lesser women — are smaller versions of themselves. These men are no heroes. Several of them have even committed serious transgressions along the way. Pittard makes their mourning as resonant and aching as she can, but she won’t excuse their narcissism.

So maybe the book’s title really reflects their vanity. That would at least explain why each of the men own swimming pools — after all, what are they but oversized mirrors?

• Michael Hingston is a writer and reviewer based in Edmonton. His blog is Too Many Books in the Kitchen.

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