In my mid twenties I lived in Los Angeles for a few years, long enough to grow accustomed to the sprawl that reached in all directions, inhibited only by mountain ranges and the ocean. The human mind has an incessant need to categorize, not excepting people, and I found that amidst such an endless stretch of humanity, to sort people into labeled groups became almost a coping mechanism. We all did it. “What zip code are they from? What town? What neighborhood?” Then: “Ah. I see.”
Robert Boswell’s So Cal novel Tumbledown goes to great lengths to do the opposite. We learn so much about James Candler, a psychologist pegged to become the next director of a rehabilitation facility, that by the end of the book, he defies all categorization. What I mean is that Boswell gives us so much information about Candler that he becomes as mysterious as, say, those closest to us. Some writers of a minimalist bent achieve mystery by limiting information to only the fewest details, using only those that defy any common characterization yet suggest the complexity of the character. Boswell does the opposite, giving us loads of interior thought and backstory, even at one point giving us a list of interesting tidbits about his character that were omitted from the main narrative itself, and in another section, detailing what a character would have done if a situation that didn’t happen would have.
I fear I may have made this sound like an arduous way to achieve realism with characters, and it might have been for a lesser writer. But Mr. Boswell’s writing is witty, complex, and a joy to read—and not just because of the challenging and at times provocative nature of his insight. In a recent New Yorker fiction podcast, author Rick Bass praised the prose of Thomas McGuane for “the many nuances of tone and attitude that one is exposed to over a single sentence.” The same could be said of Mr. Boswell’s prose. For example:
The garage door climbed in clanking segments, revealing an indecisive spring sky the romantic color of candle smoke. He could not say why he owned this car. John Egri, the outgoing director, drove a sleek black Corvette, a vehicle he treated with such care that Candler had actually seen it only once, but he heard about it frequently. Candler had not envied the Vette until fate stuck its wet nose in his crotch.
In the first sentence, we have the jagged mechanisms of industry juxtaposed to the more complex and beautifully described scene outdoors. Then, the hilarious contrast of lofty thought—“envied” and “fate”—with base—“wet nose” and “crotch.”
Blurring the lines between the cultural norms evoked by language melds well with one of the dominant thrusts of the novel, that being how the group of patients in Onyx Springs living in “states of being that have no name, anonymous human conditions that thrive at the periphery of powerful emotion the way bedroom communities manacle a city,” might find a way to fit into the more normative spaces of society. Perhaps no group of people in modern America are less understood and more stereotyped than those with serious mental illness, and Boswell does a masterful job illuminating the experience of those with conditions of being that we, as a culture, often reduce to whatever language the most recent DSM gives us. Take, for example, this section in which Boswell brings us into the mind of Mick Coury, who yearns to be the person he was before the onset of schizophrenia:
Mick followed her into the living room. He had not skipped his meds but had taken a two-thirds dose at bedtime instead of in the morning. He did not believe he might tip over into the irrational. Now and then he balanced it perfectly. But there was no system. He would need his regular dose tomorrow, and the day after he might not need any. He liked imagining the day that he would need nothing and would return to the world as it had been before . . . there were times when it was so near that he brushed up against it—a warm transparency. If he could lean down and position his arm just right, he should be able to nab it.
In a way, Tumbledown invites the reader to do the job of a mental health counselor, having to make difficult judgments on individuals whose complexity muddles all absolutes. It’s a filling ride, getting to know these characters, and perhaps also imagining we’re getting to know Mr. Boswell (the book is dedicated to “all the clients who survived my tenure as a counselor, and the one who didn’t”).
One of the characters in Tumbledown says, “Meeting a writer is always a letdown. They’re never as interesting as their work. If they were, they would have failed their books.” I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Boswell in person at a conference this summer, but couldn’t find the right moment to approach him, and instead just listened to him read from the audience. Based on how wonderfully interesting Tumbledown is, and how successful a work, perhaps that worked out for the best.