What You Have Left by Will Allison

Will Allison’s debut novel What You Have Left, reads like a series of connected short stories. When the book opens, five year old Holly has just been dropped off at her grandfather’s dairy farm. Her father says he’ll be back, waves good-bye and disappears from her life for thirty years. What follows are alternating narratives of the years both before Holly’s birth (concerning her parents Wylie and Maddy) and after, concerning Holly’s relationship with Lyle.

Holly is a bit of a train wreck. She drinks too much and abuses Lyle both before they marry and after. Of course, she has abandonment issues.

I really liked the first chapter of What You Have Left. Allison captured young Holly’s voice (although I have to admit that at first I thought the narrator was a young boy) beautifully. The first chapter mainly concerns Holly’s relationship with her grandfather, Cal, a kind man who tries to be both mother and father to Holly. His death sends Holly on a course of recklessness that seems to take her years to pull out of.

It’s not always easy to  like Holly. She’s one of those chip-on-her-shoulder types of characters who doesn’t seem to take into account anyone else’s feelings but her own. Her husband, Lyle, is a saint – even when he, too, seems to make stupid decisions.

I also appreciated hearing her father’s story. I think we tend to forget that parents have lives before they become parents and sometimes it’s hard to reconcile that. Children can be selfish. Parents, too.

In the end, I liked What You Have Left. Perhaps not everyone will like the narrative, but the voices are distinct and compelling and this slim novel has a lot to say about family and forgiveness.

Girls by Frederick Busch

The best word I can think of to describe Frederick Busch’s novel Girls is muscular. The novel has certainly received much higher praise than that. Glamour Magazine called it “powerful,” and went on to describe it as an intriguing crime story although the novel’s real strength lay with the main character’s  “growing insight about his marriage, his town, and himself [which] transforms this page-turner about lost children into a tender and eloquent examination of the even greater mystery that is the human heart.”

Jack is a somewhat cantankerous Vietnam veteran who is currently a campus cop at a small college in upstate New York. His wife, Fanny, is an emergency-room nurse. Jack and Fanny are mourning the recent loss of their infant daughter, Hannah. They can barely be in the same room with each other and so they work opposite shifts, drifting past each other in a haze of exhaustion and grief.

Then a local girl goes missing and someone suggests Jack help out with the investigation, ostensibly as a way of working through his own issues.

The characters in Busch’s novel are all messed up.  Jack and Hannah are locked in a grief-fueled stalemate and neither seems to know how to make the first move. As Jack observes:

I thought, as I stayed where I was, that somebody ought to walk around the table and hug this woman hard and just hold on.

Instead, Jack fills his days helping cars up icy hills, rescuing suicidal co-eds, drinking sour coffee with his confessor, Archie, and trying to figure out just what happened to the missing girl.

Girls is a  atmospheric and tragic story and the characters, particularly Jack, are well-drawn and convincing. The novel is often funny, too. In one scene, where Jack runs a drug-dealer off the campus, I laughed out loud.

Busch is a new-to-me writer, but he’s written 20 other novels and he’s impressed me enough to look for more.

The New York Times has a terrific review of the novel here.