Shelf Awareness Review of Tumbledown
Tumbledown by Robert Boswell (Graywolf, $26 hardcover, 9781555976491, August 6, 2013)
Some madness and insanity lie at the heart of some of the best characters in literature, whether Shakespeare's Hamlet, Carroll's March Hare or Kesey's Randle McMurphy. In Tumbledown, Robert Boswell (Mystery Ride; Century's Son) fleshes out a clinic full of colorfully off-plumb clients at Southern California's Onyx Springs Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Center. James Candler is their therapist, counselor and even friend, but he doesn't really have it together, either. One successfully rehabbed former client perceptively recognizes this strength: "He was damaged in ways that made him possible. He wasn't a floor rag, content to clean up the mess of other people's lives.... He was a man with demons who helped others by seeing himself in them."
A former counselor himself at a San Diego clinic, Boswell focuses on Candler and the reconciliation of his empathy for his clients with his own uncertainty and search for love and stability. However, Boswell's real gift is to bring Candler's damaged clients to life in ways that transcend their limitations. Take Mick Coury, a schizophrenic artist who knows his "meds made him like the blackened nub of an eraser on a pencil, while his mind without medication was like the pointed end... how could he compose with an eraser?" Or Alonso, "dumb as a sack of stupid... and couldn't think his way out of an elevator," but he is a loyal friend to Rhine, "who was a clinically measurable nerd... a nice guy, but his head was so far up his ass he had to stare out his belly button." The Onyx Springs clients can function marginally in their own "outside" worlds, but the glue that holds them from spinning over the edge is the clinic's Goodwill-like work shelter and the compassionate Candler's attentive patience. They pursue the same dreams as we all do.
In a moment of quiet contemplation, Candler finally begins to understand. "Oh well, he thought, people weren't really so complicated, were they? Humans didn't do all that much but seek out people... they might like to eat with and argue with and lie next to." With a big heart and a perceptive eye for the layers of wisdom behind the surface kinks of madness, Boswell stands solidly in the literary tradition that brings us understanding through those who don't quite understand. --Bruce Jacobs
Shelf Talker: Set among the misfit clients and staff of a Southern California rehab and recovery clinic, Robert Boswell's new novel finds universal connection in their longings and ambitions.