by Ryan W. Bradley
Civil Coping Mechanism. 2014

You’d think Ryan W. Bradley’s Winterswim could rake in a lot of dough. Consider this summary: Steven Long is a good kid with a long-time crush on Kate Stultz, the beauty who ditched their hometown of Wasilla, Alaska to pursue a movie career in LA. When teenaged girls’ bodies are found in the town’s icy lakes, he becomes determined to find the murderer. Soon after Kate returns home for a vacation, they meet again, and she turns his suspicions toward the local pastor, his father.

So we have a golden-hearted protagonist, a beautiful but unlikely love interest, and a psycho dad. The prose is simple, direct, and unchallenging. The margins are wide, the font is extra-large.

This book has the look and feel of a novel written for teenagers and subsequent movie adaptation.

Yet I doubt anyone in Hollywood will purchase option rights. The executives there could not handle the hard, crude descriptions of the pastor’s meth addiction, sexual predations, and murders of Steven’s schoolmates. Nor could they handle Kate and Steven’s sexual dalliances, documented in similarly prurient detail. Bradley’s characters—especially the pastor—act upon an often terrifying but pure surface of activity. They are not given to introspection or self-criticism. They can remember events, but they cannot reflect on them. They become shadowy, mysterious. The heroes become harder and harder to know and sympathize with—which is the real key to any marketable protagonist. We face a strangely compelling perversion of teen literature.

Pastor Sheldon Long is by far the most interesting character. He believes good deeds alone are worthless. Salvation or grace is the result only of declared faith in Jesus Christ. This belief is certainly convenient to him. It is the old and, to nonbelievers, cynical idea of the deathbed repentance wiping away a lifetime of sin. Yet there is no question that he does believe it, and that he believes he has sinned for the sake of his victims:

He was giving himself for the greater good. And that took giving your body to provide for another. He was prepared to do that. He would give those who would not be raptured a chance at heaven. He would be the vehicle for their good fortune.

Atop a cracked icy lake, he asks each girl to take Jesus into her heart. Whether she does or not, he sends her under.

His inquisitor’s logic seems twisted to us, yet that logic has some beauty to it, especially as described in Dante’s Paradiso. In the Ninth Heaven, Beatrice tells the poet that “blessedness depends/upon the act of vision, not upon/the act of love.” Do you see God? Do you believe what you see? If so, then you have been graced with vison and will act with grace.

The pastor has not seen God, but he has heard His voice. As a boy he swam to the bottom of a lake and there God tell him to go home and save his Eskimo mother from his father’s abuse. He killed the old man, sent his mother back to her native village, and went himself into the city. He heard the voice again when he tried heroin.

The story of the voice is tied up not only with God but with his mother’s tale of Gonaqadet, a man who crawled inside a sea monster’s body and used it to hunt fish and whales to feed his village. Gonaqadet and Jesus are knotted in the pastor’s mind in a way that he cannot untangle, though that knot puts a suggestive slant on his idea of himself as a Christian redeemer of lost souls. More important is to see how the simple fact of the pastor’s evil is complicated, though not mitigated, by the weight of two traditions.

Steven bears none of that weight. He doesn’t believe much in the Bible. His memory of Gonaqadet is only practically useful when he needs to guess the password to his father’s computer. What does he remember from his reading of Kierkegaard, the great Christian plumber of the self? “No one returns from the dead.” So much for philosophy. The truth about his father does not shake him either. He is an anachronistic hero. For him, right is right, wrong is wrong.

Yet he is no ascetic. The sex scenes between him and Kate—like the pastor’s scenes with his victims—are described in crude, passionless detail. Soon after Kate tells Steven about her own sexual past with his father, she “unbuttoned his jeans. She tugged them down his thighs just enough to free him, then she put it in her mouth. His body spasmed. His brain went blank. She bobbed her head up and down, swiveled her tongue back and forth.” Any emotional connection between them must swim far below the icy prose. The sequencing suggests that Kate is consoling him, but they do not cuddle and talk afterward. She leaves him to wash out her mouth.

Steven’s passivity, though, may be contrasted with his father’s sexual aggression. Pastor Long gets his victims high, then strips and acts on their limp, semi-conscious bodies. He shares them with his meth dealer, then he delivers them to the ice. Kate delivers Steven to the truth about her and his father, then to the truth of human bodies. That is a great deal of truth to absorb in a morning. A normal adult, much less a teenager, would be overwhelmed and broken. Steven is unchanged by his new vision. When Kate returns, he is ready to search his father’s room.

He reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s Greenleaf brothers. They have no intellectual interests or designs or complications. They are typical of O’Connor’s figures of grace, supporting characters set against the self-righteous and doomed Mrs. May. Nothing can shake her belief that the entire Greenleaf clan is white trash and undeserving of their fortune. Yet those simpletons have come up in the world uncorrupted by cynicism, untainted by pride. Steven has that same merit. His actions, too, demonstrate his grace.

The Greenleaf brothers are bit players. Steven is a star, and that is Winterswim’s unavoidable flaw. His grace makes the difficult world easy for him to navigate. His certainty is never shaken, never really tested. The longer we read about him, the less human he feels. He interests me structurally as a foil to his father, but there is nothing inherently interesting about him.

Nonetheless, Bradley’s novel held my attention. Part of that hold depended on the ease of reading it, the apparent simplicity of its surface. Another part was the old and nearly forgotten pull of a carefully structured and well-executed plot building to a climax in exactly the way Dr. Freitag prescribed. A third part was the fresh recurrence and use of Hemingway’s iceberg idea: everything lives below the ice. I know it so well that I take it for granted and disregard its potential power. Perhaps you do too. Bradley’s novel serves as a reminder.

Photo by Pavel P.

Marcus Pactor