In her debut novel, “After the Parade,” award-winning short-story writer Lori Ostlund has crafted an extended meditation on memory and loss that disappointingly fails to come together.
When we meet Aaron Englund, he is 40 and preparing to leave his much older partner, Walter, with whom he has been in a relationship since college. Aaron’s behavior in these early chapters reveals a strangely callous and petty demeanor. He has, apparently for years, been compiling a notebook of grievances — 149 in all — against Walter, in an effort to work up the courage to leave him. “Grievance #14,” Aaron writes, “Walter insists on using the French pronunciation of all Anglicized French words.”
When he finally does break things off, he does so abruptly, by presenting the stunned Walter with a list of household items he intends to take with him to his new life in San Francisco. Their parting is terse and awkward. “I saved you, Aaron,” is all Walter can manage. “Yes,” Aaron agrees. “Yes, you did. Thank you.”
With the help of a friend in San Francisco, he’s able to find a job as an ESL teacher and a studio apartment built into the rear of a garage. But as soon as Aaron seems poised to start building a future for himself, Ostlund shifts the narrative into the past, and spends the majority of the book exploring Aaron’s troubled childhood in and around Mortonville, Minn.
Ostlund’s depiction of Aaron’s youth is so unrelentingly grim, it verges on parody. Those around him seem compelled to heap abuse upon him, in spite of, or perhaps because of, his meekness.
His father, a policeman, is a brute, torturing his wife and child verbally and physically until he is killed in a freak accident during a parade when Aaron is 5.
The children in Aaron’s classes go out of their way to tear him down. “You know that nobody likes you,” says one, apropos of nothing. Even his kindergarten teacher is instantly hostile to him, for no apparent reason. “Everything about him seemed to displease her: his politeness and earnestness and timidity, his overwhelming need to learn. She did not hide her feelings, and this set a tone, the model for acceptable behavior toward Aaron Englund, which his classmates emulated.”
Finally, when Aaron is 17, his struggling mother up and leaves him, running off with the local pastor without even saying goodbye.
There’s precious little subtlety at play in “After the Parade,” as Ostlund’s characters tend toward extremity and exposition. It’s not enough that Aaron’s mother be named Dolores; she treats Aaron to an etymology lesson. “Pains,” she emphasizes. “Dolores means pains. Isn’t that amazing?”
Aaron’s few friends tend to be people who, due to some disability or other impediment, are relegated to the edges of society — including Bernice, a 359-pound short-order cook, and a wheelchair-bound, adenoid-tusked dwarf named Clarence, who makes sure the reader gets the gist of Ostlund’s intentions by introducing young Aaron to the photography of Diane Arbus.
Ostlund divides the book into sections by month, spanning from Aaron’s departure in December through June of the following year. But it’s often hard to make heads or tails of where one is in the story, as each section is largely dominated by a series of flashbacks that jump back and forth between Aaron’s present, his childhood, his adolescence, and his college years.
Little transpires after Aaron’s Christmas Eve arrival in San Francisco, and the plot stalls for what seems like ages, then suddenly lurches back to life in the book’s closing pages, almost as an afterthought.
Ostlund implies that, through a final confrontation with his long lost mother, Aaron is able to open himself up, at last, to a world full of possibilities. “Anyway,” he tells her, unconvincingly, as she hides from him beneath a sheet, “I want you to know that I’ve had a good life.” And it’s not until the sweet, little vignettes that make up the last few pages of the novel, where Aaron seems to embrace this newfound attitude, that we see a spark that’s far more compelling than the numbing misery that preceded them.
AFTER THE PARADE
By Lori Ostlund. Scribner, 340 pp., $25Michael Patrick Brady, a writer from Boston, can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @michaelpbrady.