Vestal McIntyre’s admirable first novel (he has previously published a collection of short stories) begins on the shores of Lake Nyos in Cameroon, West Africa, on a summer night in 1986. By the next morning, 1700 villagers and countless animals lie dead—and no one will know why, though theories abound. We then move halfway around the world to Lake Overlook and the nearby small town of Eula, Idaho, where two disenfranchised boys, pudgy Enrique Cortez and his semi-autistic friend Gene Anderson, embark on a junior high science project that will attempt to explain the cause of those mysterious African deaths.
This seems, at first glance, a rather slender plot thread for a novel of 450 pages, and indeed, things move slowly and quietly in the opening chapters as McIntyre leisurely evokes life in this ordinary, deeply conservative town. We meet Catholic Lina, who cleans houses and is trying to raise Enrique and Jesús in the absence of their father. Next door, in another double-wide, we meet Gene’s mother Connie, a devout and very lonely Nazarene abandoned years ago by her husband. We meet Coop, who drives the schoolbus and cares for his alcoholic Uncle Frank; we meet his pill-addicted little sister Wanda. We meet the lonely Mormon lawyer Chuck Hall, who begins an awkward affair with his housecleaner Lina as his unbeloved wife Sandra lies in a Salt Lake City hospital dying of cancer. We meet his fierce daughter Abby, who is friends with Liz and Winston Padgett, the latter of whom is Jesús’ best friend, though ethnic and other tensions are beginning to force them apart.
We learn the intricate social dynamics of high school and junior high. We follow Connie’s quiet longing for Bill, the missionary from Africa who comes for several weeks to the town. We see Wanda embark on an excruciatingly ill-conceived scheme to be surrogate mother to a Portland couple’s child. Meanwhile, someone starts leaving mysterious love notes in Liz’s school locker. Enrique has sexual fantasies about other boys and finds himself perilously drawn to the men’s restroom at the bus station. Gradually, behind every façade of normalcy, we begin to see the accumulation of wounds, sorrows, absences. For all its calm, Eula is both stifled and stifling, a town of abandoned folk, not a single one of whom is able, because of religion or custom or circumstance, to fully admit his or her quiet desperation. So everything festers, as Enrique and Gene methodically put together their science project which aims to explain to an indifferent audience what really happened far away at Lake Nyos—a phenomenon known as “lake overturn” where poisonous volcanic gases trapped for years at the bottom of a lake rise to the surface to be lethally dispersed downwind—and why the same could happen in the still waters of Lake Overlook.
The governing conceit here is straightforward enough but nonetheless powerfully dramatized. That Gene discovers that the gas released to such devastating effect from Lake Nyos may actually have been something so ordinary as carbon dioxide, harmless in its ordinary atmospheric mix but deadly when too concentrated, lends even more punch to the metaphor. As the novel picks up speed, it hurtles toward increasingly alarming and even harrowing “overturns” emanating from the long-suppressed depths beneath Eula’s placid surface. Some are very bad indeed, some may in the long run be good. Certain truths are finally told, certain lies are consolidated, certain people get broken, others discover or develop surprising inner strengths. In this chronicle of their thirteenth year, Enrique and Gene grow apart as friends while each inches towards his own sexual moment of truth.
The point of view in Lake Overlook is quite mobile, and there are some clumsy shifts that can leave the reader guessing as to whose perspective he or she is in at the moment. McIntyre also has a somewhat annoying tendency to jump point of view in order to “explain” something. It can be difficult to write characters as repressed as some of Eula’s denizens, and Connie’s dialogue in particular can sometimes sound a bit like the cartoonishly flat cadences espoused by the characters in King of the Hill. But elsewhere McIntyre is capable of fine, evocative prose, and proves a compassionate guide to this world of mismatched affections and damaged, grieving souls. There are some exhilarating moments towards the end, and if, to my mind, Wanda’s plot never meshes satisfactorily with the rest, there are plenty of other instances where alienated lives come together with electrifying effect.
by Vestal McIntyre
Hardcover, $24.99. 435p