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BOOK REVIEW

The past is a ticking bomb in ‘The End of the Day’

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Wealthy Dana Goss and Jackie Howland, both in their late sixties now, were friends when they were young, but they haven’t seen or spoken to each other in almost forty-nine years. One day, Dana, assisted by her two housekeepers, gets ready to have her chauffeur Philip drive her from her New York apartment to Jackie’s home in Connecticut. There, at Jackie’s door, Dana will leave a briefcase that contains documentation concerning their mutual friend Lupita, information that Dana believes will unravel past misunderstandings, lies, and secrets.

So begins Bill Clegg’s second novel, “The End of the Day.” Unlike his debut, “Did You Ever Have a Family?” (2015), which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and The National Book Award, there is no catastrophic tragedy like the explosion and the “all-consuming fire” that kills the bride, groom, and several guests at the start of Clegg’s first novel. Instead, the first chapter portrays Dana, now an old woman, about to go on a mission to straighten out the past with the truth as she knows it. “The End of the Day” unfolds slowly and, as with Clegg’s first novel, depends upon character studies and histories to tell its story from multiple viewpoints. As usual, Clegg’s prose is simple and graceful, his third-person character portraits precise, but his plotting, with its intricate, keen-minded twists give his writing the cumulative effect of poetic ambiguity and mystery. Clegg’s first novel was a novel of grief; this is a masterly story of an attempt at righting the misunderstandings of the past that is resonant and true to life’s inherent uncertainty.

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Little happens in the novelistic present until later in the book, but in the past, there’s jealousy, sex, and betrayal; fraud, misunderstanding, and a rape. In the present, Philip chauffeurs Dana and her briefcase around New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, while Jackie tries to hide from Dana, perhaps Clegg’s way of suggesting Jackie’s hiding from the truth, or at least, Dana’s version of it. Meanwhile, Lupita, now 67, who knows a few salient details about the past that neither Dana nor Jackie know, drives a cab on Kauai, where she’s lived for around fifty years. To make up for the novel’s absence of action early on, Clegg sets up Dana’s briefcase and its explosive contents to metaphorically tick “like a bomb” till the end of the day.

One of the difficulties of reading a multi-viewpoint novel is keeping all the characters straight. If Clegg’s first novel had a weakness, it was its reliance on about a dozen characters, major and peripheral, with entire chapters devoted to them, to tell the story. In “The End of The Day,” only major characters get entire chapters. Most of the action, until later in the book, takes place in the past through the memories and accounts of six predominant figures whose lives are connected by blood and friendship.

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Integral to one plot line are unmarried Dana and the widow Jackie. Dana grew up on her family’s Connecticut estate, Edgeweather, which has been in the family since the Civil War. Jackie, the “neighbor girl,” is Dana’s best friend, despite the gap between their families' wealth and social standing. The two remain close until a supposed betrayal over a guy causes a falling out. Young Dana also strikes up a friendship with Lupita, one of the Edgeweather domestic staff. Thus, Clegg begins another plot line, which will involve Alice, a friend of the Goss family, and an adopted boy she calls Hap, “this happenstance of a son,” whose birth is central to the story. As you might suspect, the plots converge — a technique that Clegg expertly uses in his previous novel and again here. The result is not a tale of grief, but a poignant story about an earnest attempt to correct the misunderstandings of the past by the end of the day.

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That cliché-sounding title is used just once in the text, and it derives from the second stanza of W. S. Merwin’s poem “Fulfilment” (Merwin uses the British spelling) in his collection “Travels” (1993) and it serves as the novel’s epigraph:

but what could we

do to prevent a day from ending

or a winter from finding

us how could we stop a wind

with no home

In that epigraph, Clegg, through Merwin’s voice, reminds us that there is little we can do to make right the transgressions and missteps of a day or of a lifetime. “The End of the Day,” like its predecessor and many other multiple-viewpoint novels, shifts from character to character without, for the most part, any transition, much like a hard cut between disparate scenes in a movie. Eventually, the novel, as they say, teaches you how to read it, and after a while the shifting viewpoints and multiple time frames begin to make so much sense that you doubt that Clegg could tell the story in any other way. His approach — resolving the present by slowly revealing the past — creates and maintains an atmosphere of mystery and suspense — the ticking bomb.

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Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at joe@josephpeschel.com or through his blog.

The End of the Day

Bill Clegg

Gallery/Scout Press, 320 pages, $28