Have you ever felt like a giant black bird is clawing at your heart, or like your body is completely immobilized by black tar flowing through your veins? It may be hard to imagine what that really feels like, but for the protagonist of Alexander Maksik’s latest novel, Shelter in Place (Europa Editions, September 13, 2016) it’s a state of being that’s nearly inescapable. Those two images are the main descriptors Maksik uses to characterize his narrator Joe’s Bipolar symptoms, that are further complicated by the hectic story of Joe’s life, which Maksik traces from the early ’90s to the present day in a nonlinear design.
Set in a few different cities in the Pacific Northwest, the meat of the story revolves around Joe’s relationships with his mother, Ann-Marie, and his girlfriend, Tess. Joe graduates from college an aloof young man with no real desire for an affluent or otherwise notable life. Suddenly, without any real warning, Joe finds himself arrested by symptoms of Bipolar disorder and within a few months, his private turmoil is completely upset by two life-changing events. First, he meets Tess at a bar and falls desperately in love with her, moving in with her in a hotel room within a week of meeting her. Next, his mother beats a man to death with a hammer in a hardware store parking lot, and gets sentenced to 5-25 years in a state penitentiary for the soon-to-be infamous murder.
The events of the novel are presented with a chaotic grace that’s hard to rip yourself away from. Joe’s internal conflicts are written with a voice that’s simultaneously, if not alternatingly, delicate and blunt. Worshipful descriptions of frantic lovemaking are juxtaposed with contemplative metaphorical monologues about the nature of responsibility which are juxtaposed with misguided revenge schemes. Maksik’s goal is not difficult to grasp. The disjointed way the story is presented — recollections out of time, from a man who may be out of his mind — paints the picture of a man who freely admits the its own unreliability. The result is a novel with teeth.
The core of this book is the familial relationships Maksik explores. Joe feels he shares his big black bird and black tar with his mother but isn’t sure how much responsibility he shares for her transgressions, or if he’s allowed to forgive her. His father is a heartbreakingly loving and lonely man, and his almost completely absent sister, Claire, is a figure of both resentment and reverence. However, the beating heart of the story is Joe’s affair with Tess. She’s volatile, demanding and fierce, and in her own ways just as damaged as Joe. Her absence from the present tense sections of the story forms a void that Joe continually addresses in his monologues, creating a pity that underscores his dependence on her. It’s a beautiful, messed-up kind of love, written with personal, window-peeping detail that is both electrifying and slightly uncomfortable.
It’s difficult to really encapsulate what Maksik has been able to put together with this novel. It’s a story that’s harrowing and heartfelt all at once. It’s an unflinching picture of a completely smashed family, and the experience of reading it can be likened to wading through a bramble bush. Nevertheless, once you’ve plucked all the thorns from your brain, you’re left with a captivating story that will stick with you well beyond the final pages.
Main image photo credit: Deborah Hardee