At the start of Mark Spragg’s novel, An Unfinished Life, Jean Gilkyson lives in a battered Iowa trailer with her battering boyfriend, Roy. Roy is the latest in a series of battering boyfriends. Now, for the sake of her daughter Griff, Jean realizes she has to leave this life. But with little money and a car that ups and dies, the only place she can run to is Ishawooa, Wyo. Ishawooa used to be home—the place where Jean buried her family; where her husband, Griff’s father, died in an accident almost a decade before; where her father-in-law, the old man who blames her for his son’s death, is the only one who can take them in. At 70, Einar Gilkyson runs his faltering ranch and continues to live on, mostly for the sake of his oldest friend, Mitch, who was crippled while Einar could do nothing but watch. Spunky, wide-eyed Griff knows nothing of these deep-seated family tensions. In her first conversation with the grandfather she never knew, Griff points to objects on the mantle. Were they things that belonged to her father?
“Yeah, they are. The football helmet was his in high school.”
“Where does he live now?”
Einar sits in a chair. There’s already a heap of clothes on the seat, but he just sits on top of them.
“He’s dead. Didn’t your mother tell you that?”
“She said you were dead too.”
Novelist Kent Haruf has praised Spragg as “one of the truest and most original new voices in American letters.” I’ll give him half of that. Certainly there are moments in Spragg’s prose that speak to our dearest sensibilities, those gestures that communicate emotions with a simplicity that manages eloquence and starkness in one breath. Einar falling into a chair without even bothering to push aside dirty clothes is a gesture that illustrates how deeply this arrival affects him and his quiet life at the slipshod ranch. “Whoa,” the gesture says. “I’ll have to sit down for this one.”
Earlier we are introduced to Griff as she awakens in the Iowa trailer. Again the writing is truthful in its simplicity and grace: “She sits in the side of her bed and reaches back to run the flat of her hand over the sheet…She imagines the warmth whispering softly that she was here, but in a minute or two there’ll be no proof she was ever in this bed, or even this trailer house, like she’s invisible. She likes thinking that she can’t be seen. It makes her smile.”
Here there is something almost sensual in the slow movements toward waking. When the writing articulates a desire to remain invisible, sensuality becomes poignancy. A page later, we are endeared even further: These are the acute sensibilities of a 10-year-old girl, one who witnessed the live-in boyfriend deliver a beating to her mother’s face the evening before. This is the morning they must leave.
The other half of Haruf’s statement praises Spragg for his originality. And here is where we’ll part company. An Unfinished Life tells the story of the prodigal daughter who returns to the American West. She’s sadder, but wiser, and ready to mend some proverbial fences. Sure, she’ll have some hurdles along the way—there’s that mean boyfriend who may show up at any moment; the kind, young and divorced sheriff who may save the day (the reader will automatically recognize him as the perfect potential husband and father); and of course those tensions between Einar and Jean that will build up and spill over. Within its first 25 pages, Spragg’s novel reaffirms the meaning of “foregone conclusion.” We know exactly how this story will end. Despite moments he poetically renders, Spragg does nothing to add nuance to this familiar tale, nothing to stir these characters out of their long-ago written roles. Of course Jean and Einar will come to some understanding, the way folks do in movies on television.
Now, even Oprah might claim that the fate of the heroine in her new favorite novel, Anna Karenina, is a foregone conclusion. We know that once Anna sleeps with Vronsky, bad things will happen, but Isn’t the journey of a character more important than the actual outcome? Yes, Oprah, that’s true. The difference is that Anna’s journey reveals something that challenges our comfort level. There is something horrific but eerily familiar about Anna’s mental unraveling. She doesn’t go to the train station to kill herself. She goes to meet Vronsky. She throws herself beneath the train without having made the decision to do so. It’s rather the decision that takes Anna, but that doesn’t make her act senseless. Its sense lies outside rational causality. Tolstoy had to use (for the first time in the history of the novel) an almost Joycean interior monologue to reconstruct the subtle fabric of fleeting impulses, transient feelings and fragmentary thoughts to show us the suicidal journey of Anna’s soul.
For a writer with such a sure grasp of prose, Mark Spragg has no excuse for unimaginative development of action. And what is action? This is the question of any novel. A novelist should attempt to tease the thread of limpid rationality out of the mysterious and chaotic fabric of life. Certainly the terrain of family dynamics is just the opposite of rational.
Does this mean Jean had to muster up a suicidal tendency in order to appear fresh to the reader? Certainly not. The Tolstoy reference places An Unfinished Life in the context of one of the great explorations of the novel: the exploration of the role the irrational plays in our decisions, in our lives. Jean Gilkyson has a young daughter and an abusive boyfriend. Because she can’t afford to move anywhere else, she returns to her father-in-law’s home, determined to take on the ensuing struggles that will ultimately work out. Family dysfunction is disappointingly rendered with the transparent clarity of a mathematical equation.