“A tree that falls in the forest makes a sound, but noise requires a human ear.”
There are certain truths about the human psyche, and one is that we are comfortable with certainties, with clear margins, with the assuaging calm of a question posed with accompanying multiple choices. Ideological divides are the most caustic because of the absence of definition; one can choose to accept a doctrine as their truth, but is it rarely thetruth.
Smith’s novel opens in a hospital, the first of many metaphors for this search for delineation. (“For Karen and Tom, the edge of the world is this twelve-by-twelve-foot room.”) It’s here that Tom, our introspective protagonist, receives the immutable news that his wife, Karen, is in a vegetative state as the result of a car accident. I assume most readers are aware of the light that Terri Schiavo shined on this issue in 2005, when her family’s public debate over the definition of life sparked effusive reaction from proponents of both sides; the protracted decision-making process was a spectacle, and few (especially those lawmakers looking for an easy way to parlay their personal viewpoints into law) could empathize. Curiously, Smith makes no headway in his introduction of this issue, but uses the tragedy, and Karen’s slow physical deterioration, as a bedrock for his extended discussion of faith and its application. Tom feels spiritually obligated to stay true to Karen, to take care of her, to risk everything on the minute chance (though technically, since the novel opens three years after the accident, there is zero chance) of her revival, or that her lingering consciousness can detect his love. His decision manifests itself in two ways: it forever delays the trials of grief, and his endless care-giving routine gives him reason to get up in the morning. He teaches art, also, at the local college where the gallery is housed in a church; needless to say, it is a rare moment that he is not reminded of Karen.
Enter Jackie, a reformed wild child whose midlife crisis resulted in the deed to her late uncle’s bar, a dive catering to a few loyal locals. Jackie was once a drug-fueled backup singer in a successful blues band, and buying the bar gave her stability, a return to her roots, and an opportunity to sing on the back stage as often as she liked. No stranger to interpersonal issues herself, she struggles with the ebb and flow of self-definition and willpower; it’s when she meets Tom, the sad, sensitive art professor, that things begin to take shape. Jackie’s patience with Tom and their relationship keeps the plot at a plodding pace, mirroring the sluggish heartbeat of the days Tom faces without his wife; while this is a clever technique initially, things never really seem to pick up. Neither Tom, nor Smith, reach any conclusions about the nature of belief, nor does the dénouement include a resolution to poor Karen’s predicament. Smith ends by alluding to his title—if Jackie has someone to sing to, it will all be okay—assuring the reader that no one great love is more important than another: when Tom chooses (literally) the fork in the road away from Karen’s hospital, he finds himself on the threshold of Jackie’s apartment, and “opens his mouth and waits for the words coiled in his heart and gut to be reborn on his lips.” Sure, we want Tom to be happy, but this ending escapes every issue confrontation presented by the characters. Smith’s writing is generally bright and inventive, but like blind faith itself, this effort is largely unsatisfying.
ANGELA LEROUX-LINDSEY is the Book Review Editor of The Adirondack Review.