“Weeping Underwater Looks a Lot Like Laughter”: Strange Title, Promising Debut

By: Sleep Sunshine

Michael J. White’s first novel begins, “On our debut night in Des Moines, Nicholas Parsons murdered a high school senior in the hotel room directly beneath us.  The following morning we received a call from the front desk receptionist announcing a cancellation of the complimentary breakfast buffet, due to the conversion of the hotel restaurant into a provisional police headquarters.”

Since I’m a writer I like to think about what made me pluck a book from the seemingly endless stacks at B&N or Borders, and fork over my dwindling cash-flow to bring it home.  Many times I don’t remember.  This time, I recall reading those first two sentences and being interested enough to continue down the page, from their George Flynn, White’s narrator did the rest.

George Flynn and his family (undeveloped, minus his older brother Zach, who is, but not far beyond the lines of jock-stereotype) move from Davenport to Des Moines, Iowa just in time to begin his junior year, in a brand new high school.  George quickly finds himself alienated from his new high school peers, who he describes as “disproportional, with oddly shaped craniums packed with perversions,” and put-off by their hazing in passing notes about him around class, one of which reads: “Please put the fire out in your crotch.”

By page twenty, though, the primary focus of the novel is revealed.  Emily Schell.  Beautiful, intelligent, unbridled…all the qualities of an excellent literary muse.  George is smitten on sight.

Mr. White, though, isn’t done.  Coupled with the “dream-girl” is her younger sister, Katie Schell, whose precocious, witty, sardonic humor really pops off the page.  Katie is also in love with George, and this element–a love triangle, but not really–is fascinating to witness developing.  George can’t help his physical attraction to Emily, while he can’t ignore his intellectual and spiritual infatuation with Katie.  And lurking under the surface is an even more compelling element, which isn’t ever raised: George’s obsession with the Schell family, as a whole.

Katie Schell suffers from MS, which flares and ebbs as the book progresses; when not sick, Katie is only mobile through the use of a crutches or a wheelchair.  While physically limited, Katie’s mental capacity is limitless.  In every scene Katie is in, she steals the spotlight, especially from her older sister, who’s not all to happy about this yet struggles with the emotions of being jealous of her handicapped younger sister when she received a genetic Power-ball relative to Katie’s losing ticket.

The narration is told from present-day George’s POV.  His life is in ruin and he looks back at these several years with the Schell sisters as the point where his life climaxed and began it’s descent.  One of the weaknesses of the book is George.  He serves as the narrator, yet his characterization is not given as much weight as the Schell sisters, or even the Schell family altogether.

The story is so focused on this dynamic it leaves out what could otherwise be a very interesting and revealing character study of George and his relationships with his parents (not even touched on after page 2) and his older brother Zach (a couple scenes with Zach near the end had great potential).  Mr. White imagined George as a red-head, which, for me, made him inherently interesting, due to the stigma red-haired men in our society deal with; yet Mr. White stopped there, as if this were enough to establish George.  Other than the passing-notes near the beginning, we do not witness George dealing with much adversity.  This can be explained with the fact that George is portrayed as kind of an easy-going fella (who wouldn’t like him), but that retards his character depth, especially in contrast to the fascinating, complicated Schells.

The book doesn’t strive too far.  All you believe is going to happen, does in fact happen, with little surprises along the way.  The hook which captured my attention on the retail floor of B&N–the Nicolas Parson’s murder–turns out to have no greater significance than a repetitive fascination for George and other Des Moines characters.  But, for some reason, neither deficiency left me wanton at the end.  Through reflection, I’ve come to commend Mr. White’s instinct to not muddy the water.  The central plot arc involves George and the Schell sisters and all the emotional highs and lows having met them bring, and that, for this reader, was enough of a meal to chew.

All in all I found this novel to be an excellent read, recommend it for those Confession-ers who enjoy coming-of-age, contemporary type literature, and look forward to Mr. White’s next effort.

Wishing, as always, great words to y’all.

Michael James Greenwald (Sleep Sunshine)
Born a Jew, though through his fellow confession-ees, now firmly committed to this cathartic concept of confessional (at least in the agnostic literary sense), Michael James Greenwald is a student at Story Studio Chicago, applying for a Ragdale Residency in the fall, and waffling daily (sometimes hourly) on To-MFA or To-Not-To-MFA, that is the question. He’s focused on his Summer of Michael, ’10, where healing mentally and spiritually is the order of each day, and moving forward, onto The Next Step. His debut novel The Rainbow Child and short story collection Celebratory Gunfire are due to be published in the next several years. His personal blog site is sleepsunshine. Feel free to venture to his Facebook page or feel free to email him with any comments or suggestions for further topics, or if you had any interest in being a guest blogger on either one of his sites.