Robert Boswell

Tumbledown - in paperback

Bookseller Responses to Tumbledown

“Robert Boswell's novels are everything you were worried a book couldn't be anymore: patient, big-hearted, and crafted with masterly precision. Tumbledown follows the fortunes and fates of an enormous cast of characters, and Boswell manages to paint each of them—from the future director of a California rehabilitation center to the damaged men and women who inhabit it—with impressive fairness and remarkable detail. Tumbledown is one of my favorite books of 2013 so far.” —Danielle DuBois Dimond, Brazos Bookstore

“Tumbledown is a capacious novel, as big as life and twice as vigorous. It is populated with a large array of sharply etched characters whose lives crisscross and oscillate between intimacy and abandon, like the dramatis personae of a Robert Altman movie, as noted on the back cover. Boswell, whose gift it is to create convincing and full-blooded characters, and who is always a joy to read for shrewd readers who appreciate a novel’s depth and psychological underpinnings, and who wrote Mystery Ride, a flat-out perfect novel, is here again on top of his game. When he is, he’s one of the finest writers we have. Here his cast of characters revolves around Onyx Springs, a treatment center for the mildly crazy. Its main protagonist, counselor James Candler, is a beautifully flawed human who you’ll want to follow wherever his poor misbegotten heart takes him. But there are many other characters as appealing. In the swirling, kaleidoscopic narrative of Tumbledown, Boswell is able to depict how we bounce off each other, stick together or fly apart, how skewed love is, yet how important. He is also master here of illuminating ordinary lives, lives lit by the glow of a kitchen light, or by the clinical brightness of a psychiatric clinic. This is an extraordinary novel. At the end you may want to return to its world to revisit these characters and to savor again the author’s precise and elegant prose.”

—Corey Mesler, Burke’s Book Store

“How ironic that President Obama called for national awareness about mental health as I was reading this incredible novel by Robert Boswell which delves into the world of mental illness and psychotherapy. A world where the highest IQ might not belong to the doctor, and a world so rich that he chooses to describe it through simile upon simile. Why use one when four will paint a clearer picture?” —Beth Golay, Watermark Books & Café

“Robert Boswell possesses a sensitive, uncanny, startling gift for limning the collection of characters linked to the Onyx Springs Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Center. Even more surprising, yet ultimately logical, is the progression each (damaged) soul makes towards self-knowledge despite their individual limitations. Therapist James Candler holds the center even as he begins to lose what he thought was his own. A surprising story told in assured yet lively and unflinching prose.” Barbara Peters, The Poisoned Pen Bookstore

“The unraveling of mental-health counselor James Candler takes place in a southern California where it's not easy to tell the eccentrics from the ordinary people. This character-driven novel, reminiscent of an Altman film, is stunning. After reading it you'll see shades of Tumbledown everywhere you go.” —Aaron Rosenberg, Magers & Quinn Booksellers

Starred Review of Tumbledown in Booklist


Advanced Review – Uncorrected Proof

Boswell, Robert (Author)
Aug 2013. 448 p. Graywolf, hardcover, $26. (9781555976491).

James Candler is a therapist at a private rehabilitation center for people “with physical, mental, emotional, or psychological challenges,” and he himself is about to become “unhinged.” Drawn to therapy by the painful questions raised by the tragically short life of his artistic, autistic brother, James is now tumbling down into chaos, saddled with a huge house he can’t afford, recklessly driving a ridiculously expensive car, and engaged to a virtual stranger. He is also being stalked by a woman who changed her name, appearance, and life after one counseling session with him, and he’s about to be betrayed by his lifelong friend. This alone is grounds for a powerful tale. But celebrated novelist and short story writer Boswell (Century’s Son, 2002) goes further, empathically inhabiting the hampered minds of various rehab clients. Beautiful, heartbreakingly vulnerable Karly’s extremely low IQ is belied by her exceptional aptitude for kindness and happiness. Handsome and promising Mick has been derailed by schizophrenia. Maura, “furious, suicidal, often stoned,” is also astute and hilarious. Within a suspenseful plot spiked with love triangles and flashbacks, Boswell renders each complex psyche and scene with magnificent precision and penetrating vision, fine-tuning our definitions of disorder and healing and deepening our perception of what it is to be normal, what it is to be human.

— Donna Seaman


Shelf Awareness Review of Tumbledown

Shelf Awareness

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 RideCentury'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.


Library Journal Review of Tumbledown

Library Journal

Boswell, Robert. Tumbledown. Graywolf. Aug. 2013. 448p. ISBN 9781555976491.

Set at a California counseling center and sheltered workshop, this story focuses on the emotionally disrupted lives of its large set of characters. Candler is a counselor in line for the center’s directorship but isn’t sure he wants the responsibility or even knows who he really is. Lise is a former patient of Candler’s, whose life was changed through a single counseling session and who believes she is in love with him. Highly intelligent and acutely troubled adolescent Maura is in love with teenage Mick, a schizophrenic struggling to get back to the life he knew before his illness. Toward the end of this brimming novel, Candler is reading an epic of “survival after the world has fallen apart…, a lively messy book, full of characters,” which is also an apt description of the novel in hand. 

VERDICT Recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a PEN West Award for Fiction, Boswell (The Century’s Son) crafts a compassionate, compelling, and ultimately affirming tale of “tumbledown” lives—the human struggle to find “some manner of accommodating the impossible.” Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 2/4/13.]—Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, Andover, MA

Death in the Woods

The Library of America has released The Collected Stories of Sherwood Anderson (edited by Charles Baxter) and several of the stories--read aloud by contemporary writers--have been posted on their website. Charles Baxter, Antonya Nelson, Rick Moody, Deborah Eisenberg, Robert Boswell, Ben Marcus, Siri Hustvedt, Benjamin Taylor, and Patricia Hampl read stories, all of which are available for download. Boswell reads "Death in the Woods."
Library of America website:

Forthcoming Stories & Essays

"Sophistication," The Idaho Review, forthcoming in 2014. 

"How I Met My Wife: Alternate Methods of Characterization,"  Tin House, Summer 2013, JUST PUBLISHED.

“Sleeping in Bars,” 24 Bar Blues, an anthology of fiction set in bars, JUST PUBLISHED.

“Some Something with Wings,” Fugue, Spring 2013.

“American Epiphany,” r.kv.r.y., Spring 2013, FIRST INSTALLMENT PUBLISHED.

“Lovely One-armed Schoolteacher,” Epoch, Spring 2013: now in print.