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A Novel Idea? 

Book Review: Not: A Trio by David Huddle

Published February 21, 2001 at 5:54 p.m.


In the follow-up to his 1999 novel, The Story of a Million Years, Burlington writer David Huddle turns his attentions to Vermont small-town life. More specifically, he focuses on Claire McClelland, a Bennington therapist, in a sequence of short works that together comprise a novella-length work of fiction.

The first story, “Village Tale,” is told by Danny Marlow, town roué and Claire’s secret lover. Recently widowed, Claire has been taking comfort in Danny’s well-honed romantic skills on the plush carpet of her office. But, as Danny reveals, the relationship has no future, let alone a present. He fantasizes about taking her out in public, “stepping out onto the dance floor and making people’s jaws drop. Ms. Absolutely Wonderful and Mr. Total Disgrace, the lovely couple — in your face, Bennington, Vermont!” But Claire makes perfectly plain that this will never happen. And when Danny tries to take their affair to a new level of intimacy, he is painfully rebuffed.

The middle story, “Wherever I am Not,” is in the third person and follows Claire’s late husband Ben through the last morning of his life. A Bennington College academic, he is overcome by a sudden urge to call his ex-wife, Julie. She was waiting for his call, she reveals, and then confesses that, years ago, she had an affair with their mutual best friend. In turn, Ben hints that he is not altogether happy in his new marriage: “I sometimes get this feeling that I’ve lost my whole life. Like I wasn’t paying attention the way I should have been, and it just got snatched right away from me.”

“Try to talk to Claire,” is Julie’s advice. And he almost does, but instead tells his current wife something else, a funny, irrelevant story. But he has gained some measure of self-revelation, and in his last minutes before the freak accident that kills him, the puzzle of his life assembles itself in his mind.

In the third story, “Not,” Claire is the narrator. Her life has suddenly collapsed. As she describes it:

It wasn’t a sudden crash. It was more the way a sodden paper bag releases — dumps! — its load of groceries. Except in this case the groceries were the basic assumptions of my life and my profession. I stood there trying to catch one or two of them, to save something from falling. Everything was slipping out of my arms and through my fingers.

Claire has decided to commit suicide, but not impulsively; her chosen method requires careful planning and lots of time. Her grandfather left her an abandoned farm on a Lincoln mountainside, and she intends to live there, in an old cave, until the moment is right for her to overdose on anti-depressants. As she explains, “My only requirement is that I have ample opportunity to feel and to think. In the moment I choose to leave this world, I want to be as present in it as I have ever been.”

But, as Claire discovers, it is harder than she realized to truly escape, and her ties to life are surprisingly strong.

The Story of a Million Years, at 190 pages, was a very short novel, and admirers of its often luminous writing may have looked forward to longer and more developed offerings from Huddle in the future. Alas, Not: A Trio is a mere 105 pages in length, and has little of the insight of its predecessor. Treating linked short stories as chapters in a larger work is always an ambitious way to structure a novel. Here, what are described in the title as two stories and a novella add up to little more than a curt novella themselves. Huddle, an English professor at the University of Vermont and a distinguished poet, is also an experienced writer of short stories, so it was a surprise to find a distinct lack of depth in these tales. Short-story writing is all about distillation, the reduction of action, thought or mood down to resonant brevity. There is brevity here, but a worrying lack of resonance.

Huddle proved himself a fine writer of fiction with his first novel, but here he seems, curiously, to have unlearned his skills. Taken singly, none of these stories has life enough to leave much impression. Taken as a whole, they would make a fine first fifth of a longer book, with all the character development yet to come. Part of the trouble is that Huddle has chosen to explore everyday lives — all well and good, but quotidian humanity per se isn’t necessarily very interesting. The great masters of this kind of writing, people like John Updike and Richard Ford, are able to pinpoint the shining fragments of interest in the day-to-day, the things that make our own lives interesting but are too tiny or fleeting to concentrate upon as they happen. Their stories are anatomy classes in the human condition, the capillaries and nerves laid bare for all to see. Huddle does not go that deep; indeed, at times he seems hardly to scratch the surface, relying instead on clumsy dramatic devices — the most glaring of which is Ben’s last-minute epiphany. We have to take Huddle’s word for it that Claire, Danny and Ben are interesting. They may be, but it would take a longer and deeper book than this to prove it.

In the novella part of the book, however, things do improve. Huddle hits his stride again, even if not consistently. There are some lovely bursts of observation, offered as part of Claire’s flow of thoughts:

The smell of a Vermont mom-and-pop with a wooden floor: candy/cheese/kerosene/bubblegum. They ought to market it as a fragrance in New York.

As Claire retreats further into her isolation and depression, her voice takes on more clarity and even poetry. Her character becomes more “real” in the final pages, but just as the reader is about to step into her world, the book reaches its end, finished but not resolved. This seems like a mistake, as does the deliberate ambiguity of the ending. The writing has gathered strength only to be cut off in full flow.

This criticism is born of frustration, not indifference. Huddle’s Story brought a poet’s eye to a tangle of related lives and to the defining event that linked them. These days there certainly aren’t enough poets with the inclination or ability to bring their art to bear on fiction. Unlike The Story of a Million Years, Not: A Trio seems to lack conviction in the novel as a living, vital form.

Hopefully that isn’t the case, because Huddle has the skill to produce challenging, absorbing fiction. Perhaps we should take this as another short-story collection and continue to wait, with eager anticipation, for his next real novel.

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