Wednesday, September 26, 2012

"In Between Days" by Andrew Porter
Reviewed by Edward Nawotka for the Dallas Morning News (September 2012)
It is the mid-2000s and the Hardings of Houston — a white, upper-middle-class Texas family — are sent reeling when their daughter, Chloe, returns home after being kicked out of her East Coast college trailed by a felonious scandal, detectives and an Indian-American boyfriend intent on fleeing with her across the border.
This isn’t the Hardings’ only trouble. Family patriarch Elson, a fading-star minimalist architect, is sliding into booze and boorishness after his divorce from his wife of 25 years, Cadence, who is alone and psychologically unmoored in a big house in Montrose. Meanwhile, their eldest child, Richard, a recent Rice graduate and poet, fights the urge to take himself seriously by submitting to the “anesthetizing freedom” of the gay party scene.
When Chloe suddenly disappears, each tries to rally to her aid, but they make a series of decisions that, “clouded by love,” only exacerbate the situation to the point where it remains uncertain whether they can ever fully recover.
This is Andrew Porter’s first novel and, as a portrait of a modern American nuclear family in crisis, it is a deft one. He weaves in the full tapestry of contemporary life and its complications: male menopause, desperate housewives, extended adolescence and race relations in post-9/11 America.
That Porter, author of the acclaimed collection of short stories The Theory of Light and Matter and a professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, set his book in Houston is all but immaterial to the plot. It is placeholder of sorts — one could not, as James Joyce was fond of saying of Ulysses, navigate the city by its pages — and it could have easily been replaced by any large American metropolis. And this is a shame, since to put it frankly, Houston, America’s fourth-largest city, has rarely been exploited by fiction writers. True-crime writers? Yes, but not by novelists.
At one point Chloe notes, “To them,” referring to her friends at college, “Houston represented big hair and cowboy hats and conservative politics” (which sounds much more like the clichés about Dallas-Fort Worth than Houston, actually), but to her it was a “magical place.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t come across in the pages of the book.
That said, the fact that Houston serves as such a bland backdrop may be intentional. The characters take the foreground and they, Porter seems to be saying, are much like us — or at least the type of reader looking to pay good money for a mildly suspenseful novel about well-off, well-meaning, mostly white people in crisis.
Porter’s characters serve as tropes for things that have defined the middle class: work as identity, education as opportunity, marriage as an institution. Each character is challenged, in the same way that those societal foundations are being challenged. And in this way, the novel is an accurate reflection of our larger (reading) society as it stands today.
That and, well, a certain segment of Texans — who as we all know really are not so dissimilar from people everywhere else.
Edward Nawotka is the editor-in-chief of
In Between Days
Andrew Porter
(Knopf, $24.95)