In his debut novel Well
, Matthew McIntosh has produced an impressive, unsettling portrait of the inhabitants of Federal Way, Washington, a blue-collar suburb of Seattle. This book is less a novel than a collage of voices (mostly first-person, sometimes disembodied) unified by their disparate attempts to overcome (or at least come to terms with) physical and emotional pain, addiction, loss, dysfunctional and withering relationships, and other common, but intensely personal, problems. Most striking is that these citizens are acutely aware of their flaws, describing their most intimate thoughts and stories with a twinge of sadness, as if confessing--but not making excuses--for their actions. Some are hopeful, most are resigned, and there is a sense of entrapment among the characters, a realization that they may not have the strength, patience or even a clue how to change for the better. They tell us their strange dreams, fantasies, describe fleeting feelings of self-control.
Of the few, more traditional short stories, "Fishboy" is strongest, wherein a high-school student realizes finally that his obsession with a classmate is unhealthy. In "Gunman," McIntosh creates a faux news report of a bus driver's random shooting, containing a succinct elucidation of what drives these folks to speak: "Why do these things happen? What is it that allows them to happen? We wonder if there is a higher order to the universe. We wonder if there is a higher order to our world, at least. We report that our world is falling apart. And we report that we are falling apart." With the proof in the writing, not the ambitiousness or media fanfare, Well is a hauntingly memorable book from a refreshing, new voice. --Michael Ferch
From Publishers Weekly
"I think something inside of her broke, whatever that string is that holds people together, it snapped." "That string" is the leitmotif of this unusual, dark debut novel with an ensemble cast. McIntosh assembles different episodes and voices to create an impressionistic tableau of Federal Way, Washington, a blue-collar town facing the loss of blue-collar jobs and culture. McIntosh's characters are introduced in first-person testimonies and third-person sketches that build matter-of-factly and then trail off ambiguously, like entries in a police blotter-if the police blotter were written by Samuel Beckett. They lead lives of quiet despair, punctuated by bursts of violence, benders and bad sex. Physical pain harries many of the characters, madness others, and almost all are cursed with deteriorating personal relationships. Among the most moving episodes is a long chapter, "Fishboy," narrated by Will, a student at a small college in Nebraska who is studying fisheries. The story flashes back to his dangerous obsession with a classmate, Emily Swanson, and his father leaving his mother. Another beautifully executed sequence, "Border," shows how the suicide of an ex-boxer, Jim, is viewed by his sister-in-law, his brother, his buddies, a former opponent and his mother's friends. The sustained glide from voice to voice is virtuosic, and the writing is dogged-it never gets literary; it digs through the clichs and the usual inarticulateness of the stories people tell in bars and grocery store lines; and it stumbles on diamonds in the rough everywhere. McIntosh is only 26, but he is already an artful registrar of the heart's lower frequencies.
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