So, if authors are going to employ clichés, they should do it with caution, care, and, if we the readers are lucky, a healthy amount of sardonic distance. Unfortunately for us, Patrick M. Garry's new novel A Bridge Back, exercises little caution and less care with its rote tropes. It is, in fact, a prime example of banal sincerity and ends up being surprising only in how unsurprising it is.
From the beginning, A Bridge Back unfurls like a movie poster that looks just like one you've seen before. However, what at first glance appears like an advertisement for last season's blockbuster (which itself was done in the style of many of its high-earning forebears) turns out to be something else—not an exact copy or a rip-off, because copies and rip-offs at least preserve some of the detail that made their objects noteworthy, but something else. And that something else is not compelling in a way the draws your eyes further along, looking to uncover more defining characteristics or to discover more of the plot. In A Bridge Back there is so little definition in its flabby narrative that the book is merely there, unremarkable and present.
Considering the the central aspect of the narrative, and how it is conveyed, illustrates the deficiency at the core of the book. A Bridge Back centers around the events of a dark and stormy night—that's right, a dark and stormy night—eighteen years prior to the main narrative of the novel. That night, a horrible and freak accident kills fifteen people, emotionally scarring the protagonist Nate Morrissey. Nate, despite his striking name and New-York-City residence, is as uninteresting and hollow as the papier-mâché projects made by friends' children.
At any rate, the dark and stormy accident provides the plot device needed to explain why he is an uninteresting "robot":
Nate had been dwelling on that event for eighteen years: if there was a new angle, he'd have seen it. There was only the brutal fact that fifteen people had died. For years, Nate had prayed some new angle, but he had long ago given up those prayers.
We have here a cold, injured soul, whose lack of hope in the future is a result of his inability to escape his past. So it goes. But thankfully, besides being the brooding type, Nate also is something of a workaholic:
The official workday at Bogler, Massey and Willister—the New York law firm where Nate Morrissey had worked since graduating law school—began at nine a.m. But the office equipment manager started turning on the copy machines at 8:30. And at 8:00, the switchboard operator began organizing all the faxes that had come in overnight. And by 7:30, Nate Morrissey was almost always at his desk. Except for Mondays, and then everything was off by at least fifteen minutes.
Ah, the doldrums of Monday! When you need a quick spritzer to get going, or maybe a quad latte with six packs of sugar. Not Nate however! The section continues:
The secretaries rushed in around 9:15. The operator didn't even check the fax machine until close to 8:30, and the copy machines didn't begin cranking up until after the coffee machines had started brewing. And on Monday's Nate was already at his desk by seven or a little after.
Clearly we are meant to see Nate as a wounded, loveless soul incapable of feeling who fills the hole in his heart with papers that he shuffles at work. And that is exactly how Garry develops him. But Nate is developed in strokes so broad and generic—not to mention milquetoast and blasé—that it's hard to muster up the emotion to care about him, much less like or loathe him.
For instance, Nate is too cold and distant from the world to be in a relationship; instead he carries on meaningless affairs. The problem is they are just as boring for the reader as they are for Nate. Take this scene, putatively a seething fight that puts an end to Nate's clandestine liaisons with a judge's wife:
"Karen, I don't care about the money. Or about nice, little, cozy Sunday afternoons. Or about pretending to be something that never was and never will be [sic]."
"Tell me, when did you become such a heartless robot?"
"1965. I was born in a General Motors experimental factory outside of Detroit."
"Have you ever been in love? Do you even know the meaning of love?"
"You have a dictionary?"
Nate liked pissing off Karen. She thought she knew so much; but she had no idea what caring really meant. Then, with a smirk, he asked which one of them was going to cancel their weekly reservation at the Hyatt.
"I should have dumped you long ago," she sneered.
This passage, I think, is an example of precisely the strange lack of interesting, concrete detail that cripples the narrative of A Bridge Back. There is the outline of a full, interesting character, at least in theory: a tortured past, a successful yet unfulfilling career, sexual proclivities. Yet none of these things, as they say in the business, deliver. They're just there, as cardboard props on a stage acted by psychological adolescents with all the depth of emotion possibly mustered by spoilt children. The lack of depth renders them completely unbelievable and even less compelling the credible. Who ends a lust-based relationship with "I should have dumped you long ago"? Or, I should say, which high-powered, wife-of-a-judge, had-to-be-tough-as-nails-to-get-where-she-is, New-York lawyer ends an affair with a dirtbag whose cleverest remarks are that he was made by GM and he needs a dictionary to look up what love means? She might have told him to blow it out his puckered ass. That, at least, would have been more interesting to read.
Of course, more happens, much more, as the narrative in A Bridge Back unfolds. You find out what really happened on that dark and stormy night; Nate resolves things with his long-lost lover; the comfort and closeness of the town wins out over the hustling, bustling anonymity of the city. But, if you've read anything, you've read this all before, and likely conveyed with richer details and in sharper focus.