By Matt Manco
By Landon Houle
232 pp. Red Hen Press. $16.95
Black Creek, South Carolina, its residents believe, is the type of town people come to because bad things don’t happen there. But when a young woman is found dead in the creek, that belief is challenged. Landon Houle’s debut novel, Living Things, guides the reader through a rich and sordid landscape as characters fight restlessness and a longing for more. Often aimless, sometimes dissatisfied, they flirt with the worst and most dangerous parts of themselves.
Winner of the Red Hen Press Fiction Award, Living Things is a deep and empathetic portrait of Black Creek and its residents. Told through intersecting stories, the novel is at its best when the reader is white-knuckled and helpless. In “There You Are,” we witness a reluctant mother who leaves her newborn baby alone in a hot car and goes into a strip club. In “Where We Go,” a young girl accepts an invitation into a stranger’s house on the condition her friend wait outside, and we wait outside as well, ears pressed to the door for signs of life or death. All of these events happen while time, like the deeper, unseen current of the creek, moves toward a dark and affecting conclusion.
The Twilight Nursing Home plays a central role in the novel. Houle artfully weaves the weight of lives nearly over through memories of youth. Nursing home residents waver between themselves, their remembered lives, and a third person–the person they never got the chance to be. The shifts in consciousness are frightening and disorienting, but the residents are tethered to the world by thoughtful caregivers who themselves swim in uncertainty. In “Living Things,” a pair of octogenarians’ romantic entanglement is cut short when one’s dementia shifts the scene from sweet and consensual to something more sinister. Bev, a devoted and overworked caregiver, follows a scream and finds Mozelle and Lewis entangled in bed. In the middle of their tryst, Mozelle suffers an episode of dementia. She reverts to sixteen years old again and is frightened by the old man on top of her. Bev calms her down, listens patiently to the eighty-five year old woman who believes she’s a teenager, and helps her shower with a tenderness she reserves for residents but rarely shows herself. Houle’s characters are committed servants to the people in their lives, and the novel explores the limits of devotion and how far we go to protect those we love.
The pacing and syntax of Houle’s prose marries the setting and action and fosters a deeper understanding of the work. Her description of the Twilight Nursing Home as being filled with “smells of coffee and white gravy and other things” fill gaps in the reader’s imagination with the horrors of aging and the disfigurations the body can accumulate over the years.
Moto, the fifteen-year-old girl in “Where We Go,” spends so much time in the town cemetery that she knows the names and dates on the gravestones by heart. Abandoned by her parents, she lives with her grandmother, Mama Powell, who is dying and “has been for a long time.” Even so, Mama Powell insists on living out her days at home where Moto takes care of her ever-expanding list of needs. In this environment, steeped in aging and death and uncertainty, Moto holds fast to small moments of permanence and stability, something her best friend, Lonnie, another fifteen-year-old girl, tries hard to avoid.
Moto and Lonnie stumble through their teenage years in Black Creek searching for the big events that will change their lives and make them adults. Moto desperately wants to be grown because, “grown people didn’t seem to hurt as much.” The pair wander through town looking for trouble. This restlessness draws in many of the characters around Black Creek. When Lonnie finds the trouble she’s courting, it echoes across the novel into the lives of everyone in town.
The characters spend so much time surrounded by dying people that those unable to harden themselves must find other ways to cope. Through ping-pong, model airplanes, music, alcohol, photography, and emergency medical training, they all search for characteristics to distinguish their lives. They pursue distractions or aspirations large and small, but in Black Creek, it doesn’t take much for things to go horribly, irreversibly wrong.
Throughout the book, we’re reminded how quickly things can change, how perilously close these characters are to an edge so few ever recognize, how “it only takes a few inches” to drown. Still, these characters keep looking, in search of something to tell them if they can ever be truly and completely alive.