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Onward Toward What We're Going Toward
By Ryan Bartelmay
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
Chicago author Ryan Bartelmay debuts this week with Onward Toward What We're Going Toward, an ambitious novel spanning the second half of the twentieth century about the downfall of an average American family in the fictional town of Middleville, Illinois.
Mr. Bartelmay received an undergraduate degree from the University of Iowa and an M.F.A. from Columbia University, so it's no surprise then that his debut attempts to inhabit a strange middle ground between the kind of domestic drama you might expect from a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and a surreal highbrow comedy that a young writer under the tutelage of Ben Marcus and Sam Lipsyte (both of whom teach at Columbia) might produce. Mr. Bartelmay approaches his task with talent and verve. His sentences crackle with freshness, but still feel carefully worked over. Onward is a propulsive read. But the question is, can a novel function as both a surreal comedy and a drama? If the answer is yes, it hasn't been proven yet. The result in Onward is similar to what Patrick Dewitt achieved in The Sisters Brothers last year--basically that of a novel with an identity crisis, one that can't quite decide what it is, and so doesn't quite succeed in making us feel anything.
Mr. Bartelmay's epic plot mostly concerns the life of Chic Waldbeeser. Chic's father is the wistful, sad, window-gazing kind of alcoholic, and Chic's childhood is turned upside down when the elder Waldbeeser commits suicide by sitting down outside behind the barn and freezing to death one cold winter night. Chic's mother runs off to Florida shortly thereafter with a man named Tom McNeeley, leaving Chic and his older brother Buddy behind to fend for themselves. Buddy soon leaves.Chic's fortunes take a positive turn when Diane von Schmidt, the math teacher's daughter, enters his life. They marry in 1950, shortly after Chic's high school graduation. Diane's parents help them with a down payment on a house, Chic gets a job at the local pumpkin cannery, and they begin living a "normal life," which is Chic's great aspiration.
But normalcy isn't in the cards. Soon Chic's brother Buddy returns to town with an Indian wife named Lijy. Chic becomes infatuated with her. Buddy, meanwhile, is dealing with significant demons related to their father's suicide. Chic's obsession with Lijy eventually grows to the point that he finds himself spying on her though the blinds while masturbating. Buddy is often on the road and isn't emotionally available for Lijy, so hapless Chic steps in and tries to seduce her, to no avail. It's the kind of minor mistake that can have major consequences. I won't spoil it any further for readers, since the twists and turns of Mr. Bartelmay's plot are a great pleasure of this novel. Still, readers' enjoyment of Onward will probably depend in part on whether they believe in the devastation wrought by a not quite innocent back rub and clumsily-executed, half-naked sashay in the kitchen.
For me, the problem with this novel wasn't the reverberations from that kitchen sashay. It wasn't that I found the twists and turns too far-fetched, or that I didn't believe Chic's reactions to the events of his life. It's not a problem that Chic's fatal flaw is an extreme case of indecision, certainly a relatable and regrettable state of affairs. But Chic remains willfully indecisive for fifty years. In order for Onward to fully succeed, I believe it was necessary for Mr. Bartelmay to find and believe in Chic's redeeming qualities, which aren't readily apparent here. He's not a particularly good brother or a good husband. He's too self-involved to ever really understand or care about his wife's feelings, he refuses to make any effort toward happiness, and we get the distinct impression he's lousy in the sack. Chic is also a bad father (though I suppose the reasons why would constitute a spoiler). And the hits keep on coming. He works a menial job and doesn't have the ability to advance beyond the cannery floor. He buys a crappy house and lives there his whole life, he gets meaner as he gets older, and he develops a case of alcoholism. We get the sense that he's a bit, well, stupid. To add insult to injury, he's also a terrible poet. Yeesh.
In a lot of ways this book reminded me of the recent British novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. The similarities of the two novels don't end with the long and somewhat unwieldy titles. Harold in Pilgrimage is basically interchangeable with Chic in Onward. Both men have seemingly outlived their usefulness, both have never fulfilled whatever potential they thought they had, and both are trapped in marriages that have become loveless . Both marriages have even suffered for the same reason--though, again, to say the reason would constitute a spoiler, but really, at what point does a plot device become so hopelessly cliched that there's nothing to spoil? I would say I am there with the plot device in question, except for the fact that it was handled to such wonderful effect in Pilgrimage. The care with which Ms. Joyce handles her reveals isn't all that separates that book from this one though. In Pilgramage, Harold changes--the moral of the novel ends up being that a life is never really wasted, and there is always time to start again. Mr. Bartelmay seems to be headed in a similar direction for most of Onward, but he just can't (or won't) turn the corner.
The danger of a novel like this is that the characters can become little more than sideshow curiosities to be gaped at by readers. Here, it ends up feeling like Mr. Bartelmay has created these characters to bid good riddance to a blue collar small town lifestyle that's pretty much gone now. It's a shame, because Mr. Bartelmay is a wonderful sentence writer who knows how to keep a plot moving.
Out of 10: 8