Zach Wells by his own admission is dull. He admits that most people know more about nearly everything than him. Zach is a geologist/paleobiologist. Basically, he studies bones and fossils.
Intriguingly at the beginning of the novel he tells the reader,
“At the time of this writing, I do not know whether I will live much longer, and you don’t know what I’m talking about”.
He tells the reader that he is one of the many people who are not good at being happy. He cannot put his finger on the reason though. He has a wife and a daughter. A daughter that he loves more than life. He has a house and fulfilling job, loves being a father. And yet despite all of this, he still has suicidal thoughts. Suicidal thoughts that he takes good care to hide from his family.
Zach has no problem telling the reader that he loves his daughter more than his wife. He knows that she makes him a better, kinder person. He believes that it is Sarah who has kept the family together and without her, he and his wife, Meg, may have separated.
Things first start to go wrong when his daughter, Sarah, misses a move in chess. Zach and his daughter would play regularly, his daughter being the much better player, the missed move, uncharacteristic.
Then after receiving a bad mark on a test, Sarah confesses that she is not seeing well. A trip to the optometrist leaves the doctor just as baffled as them as to the problem. The doctor suggests that Sarah sees an ophthalmologist.
At the ophthalmologist's, Sarah falls into a type of seizure. A seizure that only lasts for a few seconds. Now the doctor refers Sarah to a neurologist.
Zach feels the worry about his daughter start to encroach on his mind, invading his thoughts with regularity.
“The worst feeling in the world is knowing your child is afraid, not startled or apprehensive as when about to take a test or ride a roller coaster but paralyzed by that icy cold in the pit of her stomach, confused because she suddenly believes her parents cannot make it all okay”.
He is wracked with guilt, guilt from feeling helpless to help Sarah.
When he and Meg find out that Sarah has inherited Batten disease from both parents, and that there is no cure, the guilt is magnified a thousand-fold. Sarah will spiral into dementia and death. Life becomes a nightmare for them both. What do they tell Sarah? Do they tell Sarah? They decide not to tell her and let her live whatever precious moments she has left blissfully unaware of anything.
Scattered throughout the novel like the middens he talks about, are passages describing extinct species and details, facts about them and their bones. These passages are used to show how Zach obsesses with his job to the extent that he virtually ignores the rest of the world. Politics, world news, sport. None of it matters to him. He also uses this knowledge to deal with the stress. His job and his absolute knowledge on these subjects used to mask or divert his attention from Sarah’s illness.
However, after Sarah’s diagnosis he finds he can no longer use this diversion. Thoughts of his daughter are now more than encroaching, they have taken over.
“When your child is dying, it is damn near impossible to think about anything else, to enter into distracted conversation, to enjoy a meal or a piece of music or a book. I tried to find glimpses of joy or peace or whatever word fits as I watched my daughter navigate her last chapter in ignorance of her condition”.
This paves the way for the second arc in the narrative.
Zach orders a pre-owned jacket from ebay. In the pocket he finds a note that says “help me”. As a distraction, and a desperate need to help somebody, Zach decides to track down the owner of the shirt and find out what is going on.
It is painful to read Zach’s sorrow and anguish. His feelings of complete helplessness. He is Sarah’s father he is supposed to protect her from harm, not let this unfightable, invisible disease, steal her away from him, in the cruelest of manners.
Everett uses dream sequences to great effect and the prose is excellent.
What is interesting about this novel is that Everett has written three different versions. Each version has a different ending. I read the kindle version and am eager to find out how the other versions end. 3.5 Stars.
Percival L. Everett (born 1956) is an American writer and Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California.
There might not be a more fertile mind in American fiction today than Everett’s. In 22 years, he has written 19 books, including a farcical Western, a savage satire of the publishing industry, a children’s story spoofing counting books, retellings of the Greek myths of Medea and Dionysus, and a philosophical tract narrated by a four-year-old.
The Washington Post has called Everett “one of the most adventurously experimental of modern American novelists.” And according to The Boston Globe, “He’s literature’s NASCAR champion, going flat out, narrowly avoiding one seemingly inevitable crash only to steer straight for the next.”
Everett, who teaches courses in creative writing, American studies and critical theory, says he writes about what interests him, which explains his prolific output and the range of subjects he has tackled. He also describes himself as a demanding teacher who learns from his students as much as they learn from him.
Everett’s writing has earned him the PEN USA 2006 Literary Award (for his 2005 novel, Wounded), the Academy Award for Literature of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award (for his 2001 novel, Erasure), the PEN/Oakland-Josephine Miles Award for Excellence in Literature (for his 1996 story collection, Big Picture) and the New American Writing Award (for his 1990 novel, Zulus). He has served as a judge for, among others, the 1997 National Book Award for fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1991