Robert Boswell

Tumbledown - in paperback


Embracing the Sprawl: Robert Boswell’s Tumbledown: Green Mountain Review

In my mid twenties I lived in Los Angeles for a few years, long enough to grow accustomed to the sprawl that reached in all directions, inhibited only by mountain ranges and the ocean. The human mind has an incessant need to categorize, not excepting people, and I found that amidst such an endless stretch of humanity, to sort people into labeled groups became almost a coping mechanism. We all did it. “What zip code are they from? What town? What neighborhood?” Then: “Ah. I see.”

Robert Boswell’s So Cal novel Tumbledown goes to great lengths to do the opposite. We learn so much about James Candler, a psychologist pegged to become the next director of a rehabilitation facility, that by the end of the book, he defies all categorization. What I mean is that Boswell gives us so much information about Candler that he becomes as mysterious as, say, those closest to us. Some writers of a minimalist bent achieve mystery by limiting information to only the fewest details, using only those that defy any common characterization yet suggest the complexity of the character. Boswell does the opposite, giving us loads of interior thought and backstory, even at one point giving us a list of interesting tidbits about his character that were omitted from the main narrative itself, and in another section, detailing what a character would have done if a situation that didn’t happen would have.

I fear I may have made this sound like an arduous way to achieve realism with characters, and it might have been for a lesser writer. But Mr. Boswell’s writing is witty, complex, and a joy to read—and not just because of the challenging and at times provocative nature of his insight. In a recent New Yorker fiction podcast, author Rick Bass praised the prose of Thomas McGuane for “the many nuances of tone and attitude that one is exposed to over a single sentence.” The same could be said of Mr. Boswell’s prose. For example:

The garage door climbed in clanking segments, revealing an indecisive spring sky the romantic color of candle smoke. He could not say why he owned this car. John Egri, the outgoing director, drove a sleek black Corvette, a vehicle he treated with such care that Candler had actually seen it only once, but he heard about it frequently. Candler had not envied the Vette until fate stuck its wet nose in his crotch. 

In the first sentence, we have the jagged mechanisms of industry juxtaposed to the more complex and beautifully described scene outdoors. Then, the hilarious contrast of lofty thought—“envied” and “fate”—with base—“wet nose” and “crotch.”
Blurring the lines between the cultural norms evoked by language melds well with one of the dominant thrusts of the novel, that being how the group of patients in Onyx Springs living in “states of being that have no name, anonymous human conditions that thrive at the periphery of powerful emotion the way bedroom communities manacle a city,” might find a way to fit into the more normative spaces of society. Perhaps no group of people in modern America are less understood and more stereotyped than those with serious mental illness, and Boswell does a masterful job illuminating the experience of those with conditions of being that we, as a culture, often reduce to whatever language the most recent DSM gives us. Take, for example, this section in which Boswell brings us into the mind of Mick Coury, who yearns to be the person he was before the onset of schizophrenia:

Mick followed her into the living room. He had not skipped his meds but had taken a two-thirds dose at bedtime instead of in the morning. He did not believe he might tip over into the irrational. Now and then he balanced it perfectly. But there was no system. He would need his regular dose tomorrow, and the day after he might not need any. He liked imagining the day that he would need nothing and would return to the world as it had been before . . . there were times when it was so near that he brushed up against it—a warm transparency. If he could lean down and position his arm just right, he should be able to nab it.

In a way, Tumbledown invites the reader to do the job of a mental health counselor, having to make difficult judgments on individuals whose complexity muddles all absolutes. It’s a filling ride, getting to know these characters, and perhaps also imagining we’re getting to know Mr. Boswell (the book is dedicated to “all the clients who survived my tenure as a counselor, and the one who didn’t”).

One of the characters in Tumbledown says, “Meeting a writer is always a letdown. They’re never as interesting as their work. If they were, they would have failed their books.” I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Boswell in person at a conference this summer, but couldn’t find the right moment to approach him, and instead just listened to him read from the audience. Based on how wonderfully interesting Tumbledown is, and how successful a work, perhaps that worked out for the best.                                                     --Ross McMeekin


Robert Boswell’s Tumbledown takes its time. In the opening pages, the reader is introduced to James Candler and Lise Ray, who don’t quite know each other, but it’s Page 97 by the time Lise engineers a dance with Candler at a nightclub and then lands, barefoot, in his lap.

This meeting ends up being just one of many happenings in and around the Onyx Springs Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Center, a care facility in California for people with mental disabilities. Both clients and staff take turns at center stage. As their dilemmas become more and more intertwined, the inner lives of the counselors and their often very ill clients begin to reflect each other.

This isn’t a Catch-22 premise — who’s crazier in this world? It’s a complicated, nuanced look at human experience and the insights into that experience contributed by people of varying kinds of intelligence.

 Oh, it’s funny, too.

Candler is at the hub of this matrix of people. At 33, he’s favored to become the facility’s next and youngest-ever director. Characters radiating from Candler include Mick, one of his clients who has schizophrenia; Karly, a gorgeous client Mick is in love with even though she can’t remember punch lines or how to work her washing machine; and Billy, Candler’s well-meaning childhood friend who ends up running the workshop where the clients take job training.

Candler provides the more typical narrative. He’s a smart, upwardly mobile guy with middle-class problems (Which woman will he end up with? Does he actually want to become executive director?), but he also deals with serious issues from his past, particularly a brother who committed suicide.

His friend Billy is a more surprising voice. Less intelligent than Candler, less professionally successful (he has worked in a convenience store and a pizza shop), he’s in some ways a middle ground between Candler and the clients. When he takes over the workshop, he treats them as equals, and may be better at his new job than his smarter friend. Yet Billy’s kindness is twinned with a lack of sophistication that leads him into a moral dilemma.

What most enlivens Tumbledown is the moving inner life that Boswell imagines for his mentally disabled characters. At one point, Karly, abandoned by a trucker who had been taking advantage of her, gets lost walking home from the supermarket: “She must have gone the wrong way because when she followed the arrows she had drawn on her hand it got dark and she wasn’t home yet and she was sweaty and some dogs barking at each other wouldn’t stop. If she had a microwave, she could eat the pot pie. She was hungry and tired and the new boy in the workshop yelled a lot and had a funny name he called himself. She just thought of that for no reason.”

Mick, on the other hand, is highly intelligent but resists taking his medication. Boswell evokes this struggle by describing his racing mind when he skips his pills, his body “lethargic from the heavy winter garments the meds insisted he wear.” Boswell also connects Mick’s frustrations to those experienced by all the characters, such as when Mick contemplates the things he can’t do because of his illness: “He had plenty of regrets. Like the beach. He wished to hell he could have gone back to that beach, ripped off his clothes, and strode over the sand like a . . . god. Gods did what they wanted, took whatever and whomever they pleased.” Who among us doesn’t feel similarly frustrated by our inadequacies and desire to overcome them?

The novel takes a somewhat abrupt turn in style when Boswell gives it two endings. Yet even this is handled adeptly and allows the possibility that the story is not destined to end in tragedy — another example of the sympathetic, engaging nature of Tumbledown.    —  by Carole Post


When most of us think of today's great American novel, we think of Franzen's Freedom or Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad—sprawling stories that comment on contemporary society as we live it. Tumbledown, Robert Boswell's latest, is just such a book—and one you'll stay up until 3 a.m. reading. Over the course of a few weeks, James Candler, a 30-something therapist is about to lose everything including his job at the treatment center, his fiancée and his underwater house in the suburbs. Whether he actually loses it all becomes less important as the lives of his teenage patients intertwine with his. He punches out a trucker preying on the mentally disabled Karly, but can't quite get schizophrenic Mick on his meds or keep track of Maura, the brilliant, bitter depressive who sneaks out of her room at night. This look at life inside a for-profit mental health facility will make you laugh out loud, then sucker-punch you straight to sorrow, when—as Candler's best friend puts it—you begin to think "how circumstances could outweigh character." In lesser hands, the book would freefall into the bleak. But Boswell is a writer who can see the humanity, and yes, even beauty in just about anything, including a lone man sitting at a late-night diner, holding "a frosted doughnut to his nose as if it were a flower."                                     — Leigh Newman


NY1 THE BOOKREADER (Television/Text Review) 

Robert Boswell’s new novel, “Tumbledown,” is set in and around a psychiatric rehab and therapy center in Southern California. The book features a large cast of memorable characters, including James Candler, who is poised to become the head of the clinic. Candler’s patients, or clients, include Mick and Karly, a sweet-natured schizophrenic and the young woman he loves. Boswell ruminates on everything, from the pain that suicides leave in their wake to how sunlight travels all the way to Earth, only to get blocked by the leaves on a tree. This is a book about how life is difficult for everyone — how all of us, in one way or another, are emotionally disturbed. It mines this truth for laughs as well as heartbreak, as one character wonders, “How could she measure her progress when she didn't know what it felt like to be anyone but herself?” 


A childhood swimming accident has rendered a young woman named Karly “mentally impaired,” unable to count coins or operate a washing machine. A young man named Mick, who can’t remember life before the onset of schizophrenia at age 17, has repeatedly failed to stabilize his medication between “ragging and dragging.” Their fellow patient Alonso’s main occupation is masturbation, while spooky Vex looks likely to bash someone’s head in at the slightest provocation.

Luckily, he only looks threatening. The Onyx Springs Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Center won’t admit dangerous clients, which means that “Tumbledown,” Robert Boswell’s dense, intricate seventh novel, isn’t quite encyclopedic in its inventory of psychiatric challenges. But because all these people, no matter how damaged, are essentially tenderhearted, Boswell can write the most refreshingly old-fashioned kind of narrative: one that evokes deep sympathy for all its characters. Boswell’s anatomy of melancholy introduces us to a large cast of misfits trying to cope with their “tumbledown way of living” while warning that the sanity of the putatively normal people around them could evaporate at any minute.

That’s certainly true of James Candler, a counselor who’s in line to become director of the clinic. He’s fairly new to both Onyx Springs and the town of Liberty Corners, near San Diego, but he has had some good results with a sheltered workshop in which his clients are paid to assemble cardboard boxes. Although Candler has many of the accouterments of stability and success (a big house, a sports car), his clients recognize him as a compatriot, “a man with demons.”

Candler is haunted by the suicide of his autistic older brother, a highly talented artist. And Candler himself is somewhat self-destructive: while awaiting the arrival of his fiancée from London, he embarks on an affair with a woman who passes for well-adjusted — until you discover she’s a former stripper and was very briefly (one day, to be exact) a former client of Candler’s who has changed her name, had her breasts reduced and followed him to Liberty Corners. “I suppose my behavior of the past few months could be called stalking,” she later confesses, adding, “I don’t like that term.”

The boxes Candler’s workshop clients learn to construct are complex contraptions with a startling number of folds and angles. Boswell’s plot works in much the same way, introducing us to a dizzying array of characters: Candler’s widowed sister, his best friend, his fiancée; but also his co-workers, his co-workers’ lovers, his clients’ parents, even his clients’ parents’ lovers. One of the novel’s epigraphs is from George Eliot, and Boswell favors a sonorous, Middlemarchian omniscience. He can swoop into any character’s thoughts and memories and also provide external commentary, exhorting, teasing, philosophizing. “Human behavior,” he informs us at one point, “is no simple matter, and the unfolding of a single act can paper a house. This book is that house.”

Like his characters, Boswell doesn’t always pay a sensible, measured amount of attention to the subject at hand. It takes one character about three pages to reach the door when she’s going to a party: “If she was still in school and a teacher offered a class in ‘Maura Woods Climbs the Stairs,’ and the teacher was actually good at his job and it was Maura’s only class, she might ultimately be able to account for the weird flux of emotions that made her big and then small, wide and then narrow, as she stepped up the dozen stairs to the lighted windows over the two-car garage.” Readers with a taste for minimalism, for pas­sages as clean and spare as Georgia O’Keeffe cow skulls, may become impatient with the novel’s adamant busyness — like, say, a list of every movie Candler’s sister saw in the summer of 1987.

But one positive effect of Bos­well’s lack of weighting is that it makes the most important events more jarring, like the cataclysmic fallout from Mick Coury’s ninth suicide attempt, which provides the novel’s denouement. The despair that leads to suicide is also at the heart of Boswell’s 2002 novel, “Century’s Son,” and he’s best when suggesting the inexpressible mix of emotions that swirl around someone like soulful, out-of-control Mick as he pursues another client at the clinic, beautiful but barely functional Karly: “How Mick felt about Karly was like a thin raincoat he had to wear inside out. Try putting that into words that would mean something to somebody.”

Boswell is also wonderful at evoking childhood play and its “expansive sense of possibility, as wide as the desert sky.” Many of his characters remember their childhoods, even though deeply troubled, as a kind of Eden, a time before the onset of illness or the constrictions of adulthood.

Tumbledown neither demonizes mental illness nor glorifies it as a purer, more creative state. All the novel’s characters know that in adulthood they’re supposed to settle for “what could pass for a normal life. Maybe it was a C− sort of life, but that was a passing grade.” Still, they want to keep hope, wonder and love in their lives, as well as, Boswell suggests, “some manner of accommodating the impossible, some way of covering up for the failures of the rational world. This might actually be a reasonable definition of sanity.” Without a whiff of sentimentality, he shows exactly how elusive such balance can be.                                                 —Lisa Zeidner



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. —Lawrence Rungren



A treatment center’s counselors and clients struggle to make sense of an often-absurd world in the author’s latest novel

By any measurable standard, James “Jimmy” Candler’s life appears to be on an upward trajectory. After only three years as a counselor at the Onyx Springs Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Center in Southern California, he is certain he will be appointed the youngest director in its history at age 33––and he has the current director’s promise to manipulate the selection process to ensure that Jimmy gets the job. Jimmy has just purchased a large stucco house with a two-car garage and has also acquired a red Porsche Boxer; after a whirlwind two-week courtship in London, he is engaged to sexy Lolly Powell.

But all this changes abruptly one night at a local hangout, two weeks before Lolly is due to arrive in the U.S. A drunken Jimmy finds himself dancing with and then holding in his lap Lise Ray, “a thin woman with stringy hair … her face young and, if not for the slanting drear of alcohol, pretty.” Lise –– or Elizabeth Ray or Beth Wray, as she has called herself at different times –– has been obsessively following Candler ever since he held one counseling session with her at his previous job in Los Angeles. When he moved, she moved to be near him, unbeknownst to him. What ensues is a torrid, complicated love affair.

While Jimmy’s story is the principal one in Boswell’s entertaining and skillfully written novel, Tumbledown, it is set against the backdrop of a cast of brilliantly drawn characters: the “clients” (they are not to be called “patients”) who populate the dormitory and work spaces of the Center; the other counselors, most memorably former rock guitarist Patricia Barnstone; Jimmy’s sister Violet, Lolly’s employer in London who comes with her to the States; and Billy Atlas, Jimmy’s childhood friend who is living with him when the novel begins and becomes a workshop supervisor at the Center. And, because the novel fills in the backstory of the Candler family, we also meet Jimmy’s brother Pook, an unforgettable eccentric with genuine artistic talent who can draw pictures only of himself. Collaborating with Jimmy and Billy, he illustrates a comic book named “Same Man,” in which the main character has “a disease that gave him superpowers but it also made everyone look to him just like everyone else, and the comic book” displays “exactly what the hero saw.”

Boswell’s depicts this varied cast with great humor while at the same time avoiding caricatures; they are human beings deserving of our attention and understanding. One of the ways he does this is to view some of them from the perspective of another character. Thus, when the participants of the Center’s workshop are described, it is often through the eyes of Billy or one of the clients. When Maura falls for schizophrenic Mick, she sees his physical attractiveness and his intelligence; and when Billy comes to love the mentally impaired Karly, he sees her sexual beauty and need to be taken care of.

Boswell is masterful at recreating the conversations between the denizens of the Center; each is individualized and memorable. I frequently found myself wanting to write down some of Boswell’s best lines. A few examples: “Mick had little manly presence because he had so little presence of any kind”; “Karly was … a fantastic looker but none too bright. … [S]everal of her crayons were missing from the pack and none of them held a point”; Billy “was like a dog––a good dog, at that; house trained and utterly devoted, in possession of a repertoire of simple tricks.”

At one point early in his narrative, Boswell lists his characters’ IQs according to the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale. What is striking about these numbers is that, while most of the clients’ IQs are considerably lower than their counselors’, in several cases the reverse is true. Tumbledown makes an eloquent case that we are all deficient in some respects. We all try in our own ways to make sense of an often-baffling series of experiences and a world that itself often seems insane; the separation between “mentally impaired” and “normal” is not as great as we imagine it to be. Pook is undeniably a damaged soul with significant limitations but he has real artistic talent. The counselors at the Center supposedly represent society’s norm but, as Boswell depicts them, none have Pook’s talent and most have significant failures and tragedies in their lives. As a graphic way of illustrating this, Boswell writes an open-ended conclusion, illustrating the uncertainties and illogical nature of our existence.             --Jackson R. Bryer

Strict lovers of plot may not fall for the ruminative sprawl in this latest novel by the underappreciated Robert Boswell, but most everyone else will find a deft twining of irony and insight on nearly every page. Set in and around a rehab and therapy center in Southern California, the novel follows James Candler, poised to become the head of this cuckoo’s nest, and his charges, including Mick and Karly, a sweet-natured schizophrenic and the young woman he loves. Mr. Boswell’s creations are aware of their limitations, in ways both existential — “How could she measure her progress when she didn’t know what it felt like to be anyone but herself?” — and humorous: “She was tall and substantial. Puny guys made her feel all Easter Island.” “Tumbledown” wryly mines the heartache in emotional disturbances, some present from birth and the rest brought on by the business of living.


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


This is a big, sprawling, intelligent, challenging and openhearted book. Robert Boswell has been kicking around the idea for this book for some years now. My introduction to his work was with his debut collection of short stories, Dancing in the Movies, which I picked up as a fresh college grad somewhere around 1986. His stories were immediately compelling back then, focusing as they did on the marginalized and underclass (the story “Dancing in the Movies” is about heroin users), and in the decades since, his writing has only gotten stronger. Looking for a wide-angle epic that focuses in intimate detail on a wide cast of crisply drawn, uniquely individual characters? Here you go.

The novel’s ostensible protagonist is James Candler, who works as a counselor at Onyx Rehab, a high-end program/shelter for young adults with a variety of mental disorders—everything from schizophrenia to depression to what looks like severe autism. The patients aren’t violent, and their symptoms range from fairly mild to profoundly odd. Candler acts as a counselor and is also in charge of the sheltered program where many of the novel’s characters work: Karly, who is beautiful but mentally simple; schizophrenic Mick, who “liked imagining the day that he would need [no medication] and would return to the world as it had been before. The simplicity of it, the basic clarity of existence, would once more belong to him”; mood-disordered Maura, who is not-so-secretly in love with Mick; and numerous others, including the possibly-violent Vex and compulsive masturbator Alonso.

All these characters fall into the web of Boswell’s intricate plotting, as do several others: Candler’s sister Violet and finacee Lolly, his best friend Billy Atlas, and his brother Pook, who figures strongly in the recollections of both Candler and Billy. Candler is also gunning for the directorship of the center where he works, so a number of colleagues, supervisors and hangers-on are also in the mix. And oh yes, there’s also Lise, who was briefly a patient of Candler’s years back, who developed an infatuation with him and who now is contriving an elaborate plan to bring herself back into his orbit.

So, yeah: there’s a lot going on.

What’s great about this book, though—one of the things that’s great—is the way the author manages to hold these threads together. The storyline never feels lost or meandering, even though many of the characters are lost, to one degree or another—there are enough connections among them that the reader senses the fabric that binds them all together. This is not an easy thing to do.

Another difficult thing is to present mental disturbance with any sort of accuracy, and again, the author excels at this. I have worked with adolescents and adults much like the characters in this book for many years; I have known young men like Mick and women like Maura, and will vouch for their portrayal here. Boswell neither makes them genius-saints whose skewed worldview indicates some profound understanding that the rest of us lack, nor are they pitiable outcasts deserving of cheap sympathy. They are just characters whose brains don’t function quite the way they would like.

Boswell’s authorial voice hews closely to the consciousness of these characters, as one would expect, avoiding first-person expression but only just: “He adjusted his watch to match satellite time, removed his helmet, checked that he had his keys in his pocket, looked at the window over the garage where his friend Alonso Duran lived, (window lit, curtains open), fingered the zipper to his fly (completely shut, lever down), and ran a finger over his teeth (clean). Still 6:39. Nothing he could do about it, he was going to be early.” Meanwhile, Maura’s judgmental side shows up early: “The unpredictable one was the little fucknut Bellamy Rhine, a finicky, twitchy simpleton who stood too close to people and was exactly as tall as Maura’s breasts. If she ever needed to, she could smother the little prick without even bending over.”

One element in the storytelling that calls attention to itself is the author’s occasional nods toward postmodern narration, including moments and passages that acknowledge the artifice of the story. Early, the narrator addresses the reader directly, taking him/her into confidence: “But for everyone there comes a day… when even the voice of god carries a dubious tremor. Such days are worthy of our attention.” These moments are relatively uncommon, but they do crop up from time to time, and they feel out of place in such an otherwise organic, all-encompassing narrative. The most glaring example of this comes near the end, when a character is at risk of dying, and the narrative splits, with a strand following the character’s death is intertwined for several pages with a strand in which the character recovers. This sounds more complicated than it is—it’s cleverly crafted and easy to follow, but it raises the question: why bother?

Presumably there is some thematic idea here, perhaps having to do with the uncertain nature of reality as understood by these fractured characters (or their fractured readers, ha ha). But the payoff for such an authorial intrusion seems very small in exchange for the wrenching out of the story that the reader experiences. Regardless, though, the novel is a powerful one that succeeds on many levels: in terms of good storytelling, engaging characters, though-provoking themes, and lively sentences. Robert Boswell is a writer who knows what he is doing, and he’s written a good one, here.                   --David Maine


Robert Boswell’s intriguing new book, his first novel in 10 years, looks back on a major turning point for his protagonist.T

At 33, James Candler had the trappings of success: a Porsche, a big house, a charming fiancée, an impending promotion at work, and satisfaction in his career as a psychological counselor. Why should he do anything to change all that?

Why, indeed?

Look at it another way: “He was facing a controversial promotion, could not afford his combined house and car payments, hardly knew the woman he was engaged to marry, could barely keep up with his clients’ complicated lives, and had just signed up for his fourth credit card.”

Tumbledown begins when a long-ago client of Candler’s, a woman named Elizabeth Ray, surfaces in his new surroundings. The good advice he gave her as a counselor helped her once, and she has been looking for him ever since.

Not that she would expect him to recognize her, now that she is no longer the sexy drug-user and borderline prostitute she was then. She goes by Lise Ray now, and has embraced a more reasonable lifestyle. But eventually her obsession with him will change his path and hers.

Candler’s work as a therapist at a mental health clinic outside San Diego provides him with clients from the mildly retarded to the seriously schizophrenic and bipolar. The presence of so many unusual characters makes Candler’s own life seem ordinary, until you read about his older brother Pook and their sister Vi, whose teeth one of them accidentally knocked out. Candler’s dysfunctional childhood may explain his success as a counselor.

The characters who people the sheltered workshop that Candler created at the rehab clinic come across not as caricatures, but as appealing, damaged human beings. They become a group of friends, bonding despite their differences.

Boswell dedicates the novel “to all the clients who survived my tenure as a counselor, and to the one who didn’t.” He said in a recent interview for the Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program website that early in his career he earned a graduate degree in counseling and worked as an evaluator for two years, serving an incredible array of clients. While the novel is not strictly autobiographical, it has the feeling of a story told by an insider.

Tumbledown is often funny, as when the members of the sheltered workshop discuss a favorite topic — their counselors. (If you could save only one of the counselors from a terrible fire, which one would it be?)

Ethical issues arise often. Consider, for example, the young soldier who comes to Candler for psychological testing in hopes that testing will show him unfit to be sent back into combat in Iraq. Should Candler follow his feelings or follow the test? Isn’t he in danger of playing God, whatever he does?

After Candler hires his childhood buddy Billy Atlas to run the sheltered workshop, why does it take the psychologist so long to realize the dangers this poses? And what is he to do once he finds Billy living with one of the clients? Billy “had a vague belief that the ability to do the right thing and the ability to do the wrong thing were the same ability … and you could never tell … in which direction a tide might take you.”

Boswell creates memorable characters with a few well-chosen lines. Karly, the beautiful and sweet mentally impaired 21-year-old that everyone seems to love, comes to life mainly through her limited dialogue. There’s something charming about the way she repeats, “You look so good in that jacket,” even when the coat is on a chair back. Or, the way she says, “That’s so funny,” to everyone she wants to please.

Toward the end, the novel takes on an urgency that is lacking earlier. Boswell provides an alternate ending. Did the troubled client kill himself, or did he end up leading the workshop’s strange caravan to the beach?                  -- Anne Morris


Space breaks have been irritating me lately. I find myself wondering: Why does the writer think I need to take a breath here? Does the writer worry that I won’t know where to stop reading before bed? Or: Is the writer concerned that I might grow bored without a break? And isn’t this last idea a weird and sort of pejorative way to read, i.e. prose being “boring” unless it comes with a break?

I can hear the reader-conscious writer and editor advocating for the space break’s existence, yet the reasoning feels flimsy. They help convey the passage of the time. Don’t we as reader subconsciously track time in the form of sentences and paragraphs? They help major events resonate. Doesn’t a major event resonate simply by being “major”?They help organize many-headed narratives. Isn’t that what chapters are for? Yes but sometimes the there are many-headed narratives occurring within a chapter. But don’t you think most people reading this review have twelve browser tabs open and are more than capable of juggling plot lines? They force you to pick the bookmark off the couch and pick a stopping point before it's 1:00 and you're doing the twitch-sleep thing on the couch. My point exactly: They too often privilege readerly friendliness over artistic intention.

To repeat: This is an irritation of late. This is not a mantra or anything serious (…yet). I still adore the strange and bulleted and shard-like books that wield the space break as creatively as they would a metaphor—Maggie Nelson in Bluets and Anakana Schofield in Malarky come to mind as two writers who view form as an opportunity and not a burden. I guess what I’m griping about here is the more traditional modern realist novel that uses space breaks within chapters. I guess what I’m saying is: Doesn’t a paragraph’s shape and break already do the work of a space break? Isn’t a space break in some way exhibiting a reluctance to place different times and characters and ideas in sharp juxtaposition, and shouldn’t contemporary written art welcome and invite and encourage this juxtaposition?

All of this has been on my mind recently, which is why I found the opening chapter of Robert Boswell’s new novel so exciting and effective. Tumbledown is a big, sprawling book, one in which therapist James Candler and his many patients “encounter life in vastly dissimilar ways.” It features a large cast of characters and introduces them in such a manner that will prompt reviewers to say things like “once everything settles down [and the narrative is made more digestible, often via space and chapter breaks], the novel finds its groove.” Yet what makes the opening chapter so wonderful is how positively without-traditional-groove it is. Paragraph two starts with James Candler:

“The subtle pleasures of suburban life would prove difficult for Candler to seize.” 

Simple enough. We hear a bit about the town: SUV’s idling at the elementary school, a steakhouse that serves Mexican food and shows CNN on an “elevated screen the size of a motel mattress,” the irksome “spitting applause of sprinklers.” And as soon as this suburban summary crescendos at the bottom of page one, there is a paragraph break. The next line:

“For Elizabeth Ray, it was an entirely different place.” The omniscient third-person narration spends a paragraph moving around town with Elizabeth, another paragraph laying out the town, then starts the sixth full paragraph back with Candler:

“On this particular day—the day James Candler would come unhinged—he was up earlier than usual, his morning beginning with the smell of brownies in the oven, a dripping spatula in his mouth, and an uncertain feeling in his gut that we was about to do something devastatingly stupid.” Paragraph breaks become highly anticipated events. Where might the story go next? “Lise Ray had just turned twenty-seven,” starts a paragraph. Identities are already being slightly altered. “Down the hall in Candler’s oversized house,” starts the next, “a friend whose marriage had failed slept fitfully, having sought out Candler in his time of need.” When there is finally an opening line to a paragraph that hints at a convergence of narrative lines (“How Elizabeth Ray first met James Candler was a story she had told a thousand times, but only to herself”), the lines converge quickly, then keep shooting off toward targets beyond the intersection, the novel diverging to introduce its many characters and plot lines. The novel’s size and scope are made possible by that tightly wound first chapter in which there are no space breaks, the paragraphs sturdy and sure in their close quarters even as the plot lines swerve madly and eventually sprout new narrative avenues.

There are other reasons to love Boswell’s opening chapter. The man can write a sentence: “her flopping heart like a fish that had outgrown its bowl”; “a liberated strip of tire in the passing lane, a knobby artifact, like a black egg carton.” The Porsche at the outset of chapter two is the “red of holiday lingerie.” Tumbledown is fertile grounds for sentence underlining, and while it is always a treat to read inventive sentences—and a treat to read a novel that portrays the supposedly sane and the less-than with equal sympathy, humor, and grace—it is rare to see paragraphs given the same careful thought. The first chapter makes you sit up. It reminds you that a paragraph break can be an event as interesting as any novel.                                                -- Patrick McGinty


It’s possible to sink into Robert Boswell’s Tumbledown as if it were a big, old-fashioned novel, with a large cast of quirky characters whose lives cross paths so many ways that they seem to make up their own strange but credible world.

But that experience is often knocked ajar, leaving readers who might have drifted off lost in a story in which it is crucial to rethink what has come before.

The novel begins as the story of ambitious, charming Jimmy, a counselor at a residential mental-health center near San Diego; and Lise, who works at an upscale boutique and has been quietly stalking him since he changed her life several years earlier.

Jimmy, who is up to his eyeballs in debt and has hopes of becoming director of the center, has recently become engaged to Lolly, a friend of his sister Violet’s. He has also secured a job for his hapless friend, Billy, supervising the clients at a sheltered workshop.

Among Jimmy’s clients are schizophrenic Mick, who tries to regulate his medication; sweet Karly, brain-damaged in an accident; and sarcastic Maura, confined because of a suicide attempt.

These damaged souls live “tumbledown” lives — and so do the novel’s “sane” characters.

Boswell moves with fluid grace among the minds of the characters, sometimes touching down in three or four minds in a single paragraph without interrupting the novel’s flow.

He brings the story into focus with pleasingly apt turns of phrase: Members of the center’s board, considering Jimmy’s candidacy, wander his living room “fondling his knickknacks”; Jimmy drives a Porsche “red as holiday lingerie”; Billy’s belly “filled his undershirt in a lively way."

The novel is a symphony of voices and stories, and those voices and lives play off one another to create a richly complex vision of the way choices echo through and change the members of a group.

Just when it seems as if Boswell is tying up the plot’s strands, he heads in a new direction, deepening the novel.

Compassionate without getting sentimental and deviously comic without falling into the snarky, Tumbledown is an irresistible read.                  --Margaret Quamme    


“There are two types of writers,” Robert Boswell told a room of graduate students at Oregon State University in May. “The ones who keep writing the same book, and the ones whose books are all different. I try to be the second kind.”

And how is Boswell’s seventh novel—Tumbledown, released this week from Graywolf—different from the others?

“The point of view is unreliable omniscience,” he said. “I don’t think that’s ever been done. If it has, I’ve never seen it.”

The two words,  unreliable and omniscience, hardly seem to fit together. If a narrator is all-knowing, how can that narrator be wrong about anything? Boswell’s execution of this bizarre form is provocative when it finally culminates, but that’s not the reason Tumbledown is such an absorbing read.

The novel’s action centers around James Candler, a thirty-three-year-old counselor who is in line to take over Onyx Springs, a center for young adults with mental challenges near San Diego. The drastic promotion has encouraged Candler to live beyond his means both financially and emotionally—and even morally. While he races his “absurd” Porsche Boxster on his morning commute and prepares to marry a gorgeous woman he barely knows, a former patient of Candler’s from a different facility begins to infiltrate his life. This is Elizabeth Ray, formerly known as Beth Wray, aspiring actress and part-time prostitute: “Beth Wray sounded like  Death Ray, and that was the effect she intended to have on audiences: a fatal device from the conceivable future.” She now goes by Lise, “pronouncing it like a rental agreement,” and has spent the last several years quietly loving and stalking James Candler.

Over Candler there hangs a foreboding promise of ruin. The story opens on “the day James Candler would come unhinged,” as the narrator describes it. And even if that doesn’t come to pass quite as spectacularly as the line suggests, there are clear signs that he is living an untenable life. On his morning commute, for example, the Plymouth he’s racing in his Porsche flips and crashes behind him on the freeway. Candler arrives to work disturbed and doesn’t know how to handle himself:

“Clay Hao had warned him that here would be days when his personal life interfered with his professional composure. He had offered advice but Candler could not remember it. Relax? Concentrate? Take a slug of whiskey?”

He ends up confessing his transgressions to an old tractor with headlights like T. J. Eckleburg’s eyes. This is clearly not a man headed for glory.

The humor in this kind of action begins to signal the distance between Boswell’s droll narrator and his desperate characters. The prose is likewise charged with wit and playfulness. Often this comes from bull’s-eye descriptions and metaphors, as when Boswell depicts the Porsche’s cover as “a giant windbreaker to be daily stretched over its glistening body, a chore roughly as difficult as dressing a dead man.” At other times it comes from his perception of irony and absurdity, as when the man who advised Candler to buy his Porsche also advises him to avoid the unnecessary mileage of driving the car to work: “To which Chandler responded, ‘How am I supposed to get there?’” Sometimes it comes from little games of language or syntax, as when Boswell writes that a band called the Lawn Chairs “ultimately folded,” or when he organizes a parent’s eighteen-line letter into a single sentence of rolling clauses. And often it comes from the pretenses and illusions of the characters, as when Beth Wray asks, “If you don’t have sex for three years, are you a virgin again?”

This is one way the narration might be considered unreliable. The novel mostly operates in traditional omniscience, with the narrator pronouncing general truths and then disappearing into the consciousness of whoever is carrying the point-of-view torch. Those characters become de facto narrators, and they have such flawed perception that their judgments are often unreliable: “Every month or two Lise searched online for James Candler. She was not obsessed with the idea of seeing him again.”

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the narrator reports those judgments unreliably. So what in the world can it mean for an omniscient narrator to be unreliable? It’s a difficult concept to comprehend. Typically, unreliable narrators are characters within the stories they’re narrating, and the author shows them to be unreliable by creating discrepancies between what the narrator tells us and what we see for ourselves. If, for example, a first-person narrator declares himself sane, then claims that an old man’s heart was beating so loudly that it might have woken the neighbors, we have two contradictory messages. One indicates sanity, the other lunacy. But we trust what we see for ourselves (the lunacy) no matter how adamantly the narrator insists otherwise. In this way, his storytelling becomes unreliable.

But if a narrator is truly omniscient, how could he make a mistake as drastic as applying the label “sane” to a character like this one, from Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Tell-Tale Heart”? Wouldn’t that challenge the very nature of the omniscience? And anyway, what value would it have to the story? In first-person stories, unreliability can tell us a lot about the character narrating. Blindness can come from any number of sources beyond insanity: love, arrogance, shame, faith, lust, hunger, or even, as we all know, just a desperate need to urinate. The narrator’s particular form of blindness tells us a lot about who she is and what her troubles might be. But how can this be true for a disembodied third-person voice?

Boswell gives little hints along the way, as when he intimates that some days “even the voice of god carries a dubious tremor.” Another comes when he writes that Candler’s navigation system “provided perfectly omniscient directions” on a day that Candler repeatedly ignores them. “Recalculating,” the navigation voice keeps confessing. This is important, as Boswell also suggests that the very nature of omniscience has shifted as modern society has come to trust difference sources: “At one time the province of the gods and later the dominion of science, omniscience was now the property of technology.” And we all know how Reliable that can be.

The ultimate point, however, seems to be that any claim to omniscience is a charade. When he must put together a formal evaluation of a soldier who doesn’t want to be redeployed, for example, Candler writes: “I need not only weeks of examination but something like an omniscient understanding of his psyche, and I would need the same all-knowing comprehension of the conditions of the war, and, for that matter the reasons for war. While I am accustomed to assuming this type of role, in terms of the client’s situation, I am feeling a tad uncertain or unreliable.”

And Boswell applies this logic even to his own omniscient storytelling. Throughout the novel, he develops many instances of doubling. Lise dreams about sprouting a second head, which vies for control of her body. Candler’s fiancée has separate wardrobes and personalities for her professional and personal lives: “I’m two people,” she says. A schizophrenic boy at the facility has two distinct personalities, the turbocharged one when he skips his meds, and the slow, foggy one when he takes them. Even Candler’s childhood corgi “was really two corgis”—the original that was put to sleep and the subsequent one that replaced it.

This culminates with the novel’s ultimate doubling. Yogi Berra, a Yankees catcher from the 1950s, is purported to have said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Boswell seems to have followed this impossible advice at a crucial narrative fork regarding the fate of the schizophrenic boy—he takes both paths. This calls into question all kinds of narrative aspects, perhaps most distinctly what happens, but also how the narrator can reliably report two contradictory storylines. In this way, Boswell’s omniscient narrator becomes truly unreliable.

The success of such a move is sure to be controversial, and Boswell addresses this in the text near the end, just after adding the second path to the first: “Readers encounter the impossible in vastly dissimilar ways. Some throw the goddamn book across the room and curse the author by name.” He is talking about his own book, his own name, his own impossible narrative choice. This metafictional pursuit isn’t nearly as interesting as the story from which it arises, but in a novel filled with character limitation, it’s a worthy point: Even the gods are fallible, and so are those promoted to their stature, such as omniscient narrators and the authors behind them.

The character limitation comes largely from the patients at Candler’s center, who also receive point-of-view sections. Also figuring in are Candler’s childhood friend and Candler’s sister. In one way or another, all these characters are in over their heads, just as Candler is. The friend is set up with an overseer’s job he seems destined to bungle. The sister’s poor sense of direction prevents her from ever finding her way around town. For many of the patients, ordinary life is challenging enough. Part of their treatment involves assembling pantyhose boxes at a sheltered workshop, where they endlessly pine for and badger one another. If they can make it through a workday without shattering windows or masturbating publicly, that day is a success, never mind how much work they get done.

Learning the idiosyncrasies of these characters and watching them interact is both entertaining and engaging. The novel’s action bogs down a bit in the second half when Boswell begins detailing the minutia of their thoughts and histories, but the tenderness, innocence, and camaraderie from this ensemble will keep you sympathetic and invested. All the characters, the impaired as well as the competent, love and reject each other without fully comprehending their actions, and that’s what the novel is really about, regardless of its form.                     J.T. Bushnell


Thirty-three-year-old James Candler is in over his head. Betrothed to a woman he barely knows, stalked by a former client named Lise, shackled with a big, ugly house and an expensive Porsche he doesn’t even like, the reader might urge him to see a counselor, except for one thing: he IS a counselor. He’s a counselor being groomed for the directorship at Onyx Springs Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Center, a cushy private facility in sunny southern California, nestled in the hills against old avocado farms.  

The setting is a perfect backdrop for a cast of characters that could rival a Robert Altman film. Central to the narrative is the question: what is sanity? Both the clients and the staff struggle with the everyday and the profound, from leaving the eggs out of a batch of brownies, to dealing with past and potential suicides. Yet TUMBLEDOWN is entertaining, funny and brilliantly written. “She smiled at him, and he imagined kissing her and falling into her mouth and staying there, sleeping like hard candy on her tongue.” And, “Downstairs, he dipped into the living room to say good night to his mother, who was spread over the couch buns like a condiment.” 

"...entertaining, funny and brilliantly written.... I recommend TUMBLEDOWN for its humanity, humor and compassion."

Boswell has a knack for illuminating states of mind and being, and the reader is quickly engaged by the characters with all their foibles.  Billy Atlas, Candler’s childhood friend, moves into the big ugly house with him and takes a job at the sheltered workshop that was Candler’s innovation. Karly Hopper, stunningly gorgeous, kind and “mildly mentally impaired,” is good at complimenting people but cannot figure out the washing machine. Mick Coury, a young schizophrenic in love with Karly, cheats on his meds and hopes someday to go back to the mysterious self he was before his illness. Maura Wood, a sarcastic self-harming teen, narrates the goings-on in the sheltered workshop and is dismayed to find herself in love with Mick. 

Add to these the former client/stalker Lise Ray, who definitely complicates Candler’s engagement plans. Here’s Lise, who comes to understand that the man she’s been obsessing over is a fantasy: “She felt this break between the first James Candler and the second in her chest, but not as if her heart were breaking, more like the way a hiker who has ascended a ridge only to discover yet another ridge beyond it feels disappointment and resignation, along with a powerful announcement of fatigue.”

Now for the caveats. TUMBLEDOWN is long, and Boswell indulges in some potentially off-putting literary techniques, like relaying two narratives in alternating paragraphs in the same chapter. Late in the 429 pages, he takes some plot liberties so egregious that he feels compelled to comment. “Readers encounter the impossible in vastly dissimilar ways. Some throw the goddamn book across the room and curse the author by name…. Still others keep the faith, shaken yet willing to continue. But every reader wants the impossible acts addressed.” Yes, we do, and we may quibble with the manner in which they are addressed.

Those readers wanting definitive answers or even a clear-cut, straightforward narrative are hereby warned that this is not that kind of novel. That said, I recommend TUMBLEDOWN for its humanity, humor and compassion.  –Eileen Zimmerman Nicol


“Readers [always] encounter the impossible in vastly dissimilar ways. Some throw the goddam book across the room and curse the author by name. Others imagine the snide comments they’ll post on a book review website…[But] every sane person has to find every day some manner of accommodating the impossible, some way of covering up for the failures of the rational world. This might actually be a reasonable definition of sanity.”

The theme contained in this quotation – that every day a sane person must figure out ways to deal with the impossible – permeates every aspect of this novel by prize-winning author Robert Boswell, whose recent collection of stories. The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, deals with similar issues. In Tumbledown, Boswell uses his experience as a psychological counselor to create realistic but damaged characters who try and fail every day to accommodate the impossible. In his dedication to the book, in fact, Boswell honors “all the clients who survived my tenure as a counselor and to the one who didn’t,” an ominous introduction to this novel set in a residential facility, where main character, therapist James Candler, is responsible for six young clients, most of them under the age of twenty-five.

Candler, age thirty-three, is neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist, and his own life is a mess. He has bought a house outside of San Diego on which he cannot make the payments, and which is now “under water.” He has jumped at the chance to buy a used Porche Boxter which he does not need and cannot afford. He has spent six years living with a woman he thinks he might have loved, but she has left him and has married someone else. Now engaged to a woman with whom his primary contact has been by e-mail, he is also at the mercy of his raging desire for another woman who was once a patient. His only big achievement on the job has been to set up a sheltered workshop for his clients, hoping that they will eventually be able to get jobs on an assembly line. Not at all insightful and frequently patronizing, Candler sticks by the rules and tends to pigeonhole people, not only his clients but the people he knows outside his work. For mysterious reasons, the departing director of the Onyx Springs Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Center has encouraged Candler to apply for the job of director of the facility, and he appears to have the inside track for the job.

A native of Tucson, Candler grew up on the wrong side of the city, the son of two artists, with an older sister Violet, an older brother Pook, who died as a teenager, and a best friend, Billy Atlas, with whom he used to spend hours trading baseball cards and creating an unusual superhero comic strip called Same Man, illustrated by his brother Pook, who made all the faces in the strip the same. Now, almost twenty years later, Candler and his friend Billy are together again – Billy has moved in with him “temporarily” while he takes over Candler’s job of running the sheltered workshop at the Center in anticipation of Candler’s promotion. Billy has never been able to get organized and has spent much of his “career” working at a U-Tote-M convenience store. He has no qualifications at all for the job at Onyx Springs, other than his big heart.

For the first third of the novel, author Boswell introduces his dysfunctional characters, their past histories, and their problems, not just for the clients but the staff, too. Guillermo Mendez resides at the Center hoping that after two tours of duty in Iraq that someone there will declare him unfit to return for another terrifying tour of duty. Alonso Duran disappears into the bathroom so often that Candler has to bribe him to keep him focused on something – anything – else. Karly Hopper, the gorgeous client with whom most of the men, including Billy Atlas, are in love, is mentally handicapped, with an IQ so low she is unable to function her own. She lives “off-campus” with a mysterious, long-distance trucker in his forties, who returns to her place between trips. Bellamy Rhine, a pathetic sort, dreams of Karly, and later of Maura Wood, a tough, smart client who cannot stand him and tells him so. Mick Coury, the client that readers will probably care most about, was a happy, productive teenager until he became the victim of schizophrenia. Stuck, as he sees it, between being a zombie as a result of his medications or being violent and self-destructive without them, Mick agonizes, yearning for the life he remembers from just a few years in the past. Constantly experimenting with his meds in an effort to become closer to “normal,” Mick tries to court Karly, having no clue about her personal life outside the Center and no ability to read the signs or signals she sends.

The “plot,” a collection of vignettes involving the characters and their interactions with each other and with life in general, unwinds on several levels at once – sometimes involving scenes of the clients interacting with each other, sometimes clients in conjunction with one or more members of the staff, and sometimes staff members with each other and/or with the two women in James Candler’s off-campus life. The often grotesque ironies in the characters’ lives and their sometimes bizarre interactions, do, at times, lead to scenes bordering on farce, but the overlay of the clients’ dysfunctions and the sympathy these people engender in the reader keep the novel grounded, even when the characters are not. Their irrational behavior represents their best efforts to deal with life’s impossibilities, even when they cannot evaluate their actions in relation to the wider world or see that world for the sometimes absurd, illogical place that it is.

Ultimately, the author summarizes his themes in relation to specific clients and characters in the novel, remarking in the surprising conclusion that “Every reader wants the impossible acts addressed: a big brother’s sudden and permanent and utterly inexplicable disappearance – how is that possible? A son’s baffling descent into madness? A husband who one day cannot lift his coffee cup? A woman who discovers that she has put a price tag on some part of her soul?…” But he then reminds us that “every sane person has to find every day some manner of accommodating the impossible, some way of covering up for the failures of the rational world.” Everybody lives in a “tumbledown” world and there is no going back. “Believing in those days of seamless reality is the real madness,” Robert Boswell says, and the conclusion of this novel, filled with contradictions, impossibilities, and elements of wish fulfillment undeniably proves this.  

                                                                                          --Mary Whipple


After a hiatus of 10 years, Robert Boswell returns with a new novel — his seventh — which once again shines a searing spotlight on the human condition. “Tumbledown” follows the checkered fortunes of James Candler, a young, go-getting counselor at a mental health clinic outside San Diego. As ever with Boswell, secondary characters matter, and Candler’s travails soon run alongside or intersect with those of his patients, friends and lovers. It is a busy and ambitious book but, by the same token, one that is bursting with life.

At the outset, Candler is on the up. He is poised to become director of the Onyx Springs Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Center. His sheltered workshop program in which patients (or for him, “clients”) improve their concentration skills on an assembly line has been a hit. He is engaged to the stunning Lolly, who is soon to re-enter his life after a stint in London. However, after gently chipping away, Boswell allows cracks to appear. Candler has underestimated the severity of certain patients’ illnesses. His best friend, Billy, has gone from hapless to hopeless. Perhaps worst of all, Candler has begun an affair with Lise ("pronouncing it like a rental agreement"), a girl who long ago enjoyed a counseling session with him and has ever since been "a little obsessed."

Candler is the novel’s linchpin but Boswell ensures that supporting cast members pull their weight — their presence integral rather than merely decorative. Onyx Springs’ ragtag bunch of staff and patients includes failed actresses and washed-up rock stars, a woman called Rainyday, a temptress named Karly and a man known as the War Vet even though he isn’t one. Boswell, himself a former counselor, has drawn on his experience to superb effect. His “nimrods and dimwits” convince and entertain, but Boswell also calibrates the mordant comedy to offer witty asides on sex and relationships: “Love is a toxin,” we learn. “It’s released in the blood by the appendix, which is why thinking men have theirs removed.”

Blended in with the mayhem are poignant observations and incisive commentaries on mental illness, particularly when patients refuse to take their medications and appear at their most vulnerable, and in the sections where Candler reflects on his artist-brother’s suicide. Even our protagonist isn’t entirely immune, being “a man with demons, who helped others by seeing himself in them.” In the two weeks Candler and Lise have together before his fiancée’s return, there are heartfelt meditations on perhaps that greatest mental impairment of all, the need to be loved.

If there is fault to be found it is in the occasional overdone dent in Boswell’s otherwise durable prose (“homemade baklava, the crust as delicate as the eyelids of exotic birds”). But in the main this is classic Boswell, from the deft twining of pathos and hardheadedness to the casual references to his beloved Bruce Spring­steen and Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” the latter of which Boswell dissected so well in his 2008 primer on fiction, “The Half-Known World.”

Tumbledown is a welcome return from a grossly overlooked and underrated novelist. With luck the wait for Boswell’s next offering won’t be nearly so long. –Malcolm Forbes


Tumbledown, Robert Boswell’s seventh novel — his first in a decade — is a successful complication of a book: light and dark, difficult and easy, a profound soap opera.

Although scene-stealing characters surround him, “Tumbledown” centers on James Candler, age 33, a therapist at Southern California’s Onyx Springs Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Center. The novel is loosely inspired by the two years Boswell spent in San Diego as a young man as a clinic counselor, and he has dedicated the book to his clients.

Tumbledown opens in April 2008 and Onyx Springs “no longer accepted severely damaged clients … no one with the diagnosis of borderline personality was admitted and no seriously intellectually disabled clients. None of the recent schizophrenics had a history of violence.” Boswell casts a dark cloud over the book: “If the economy tanks, the rules change.”

James is in line “to be the youngest director in its history,” which he neither particularly wants or deserves. Yet he complies with suggestions to make certain adult acquisitions for the job: a car, a fiancée and real estate (“a big stucco house snouted by a two-car garage…why in the world had he bought this travesty of a house?”).

Character by character, Boswell introduces those in James’ world: his best friend, Billy; clients; co-workers; his boss; his fiancée; remembered friends and family from childhood; clients’ family members. From each character’s idiosyncrasies, a bustling and believable world emerges.

Guillermo wants psychological testing to say that he shouldn’t be in the military but that he could make it as an artist, instead. Barnstone is one of the most trusted counselors except that she invites ex-clients to live with her. Each day, Mick creates new bargains with himself on how to ingest the Thorazine he doesn’t like to take — half, later, snort it. Lise is an ex-client and doesn’t like to think that following James, her former therapist, is stalking. There is a goodness to Billy, ever reliable and harmless, even if he’s living in James’ spare bedroom and doesn’t have a job. And every male, client and counselor alike, dreams of marrying vulnerable Karly Hopper, IQ 65, who is drop-dead gorgeous but can’t wash her own clothes.

They and a host of other characters struggle to get through each day. Billy “had a vague belief that the ability to do the right thing and the ability to do the wrong thing were the same ability, and it existed like a great body of water on which floated your personality, and you could never tell just what might seep through, or in which direction a tide might take you.”                                               --Holly Silva


Robert Boswell’s new novel Tumbledown  (Graywolf) is a multifaceted work that covers a vast scope from tragedy to identity to mental illness. The narrative mostly centers on James Candler, a counselor at a posh Southern California treatment center specializing in everything from schizophrenia to suicidal behavior — yet the story is almost just as much about Candler’s patients, his family, his friends and the other people in his life. Boswell’s use of both roaming viewpoint and an omniscient narrator allows so many dimensions within the story that there is no single focal point.

This is not the first time Boswell has used omniscient narration, and the experience shows. Though the book offers plenty in terms of plot, the novel's driving force is the tension created by being in so many characters’ heads, offering views of each from seemingly every angle. Admittedly, the changing of perspectives is at first a barrier for getting into the book, but once immersed in the narrative, the device provides readers total access to a story in a way few books venture to. It seems that Boswell is attempting to approach something like truth.

Absolute truth is not a concept much in fashion in contemporary fiction, and is generally taken to be an impossible project anyway, but this novel comes as close as any I’ve ever read. The story goes so in depth into the perspectives of each character, providing so much context for the story and so many opinions and points of view that it would likely fall apart without the continual guidance of the omniscient narrator. Structure echoes intention: In order to get to the heart of the themes, we have to see everything, and we do. By the end, it does feel as though we have experienced, if not complete truth, something very close. 

This preoccupation with truth is fascinating in and of itself, but is amplified even moreso by the presence of mental health issues throughout the novel. Conventional wisdom might hold that having a mental disorder like schizophrenia makes one less likely to understand truth, but this book turns the notion on its head. The patients at the treatment center are portrayed as every bit as valid in their viewpoints as their non-committed counterparts. They just operate differently. As a young James Candler tries to explain to his parents about his mentally ill brother Pook, “It’s like we’re dogs…but Pook’s a cat. He doesn’t make any sense to dogs, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t make sense to anybody…If we could see him through cat eyes, he’d make perfect sense.”

In some ways, this novel is an attempt at “cat eyes.” Tumbledown is concerned with truth that ironically draws heavily on the perfectly valid perspective of disturbed individuals (both clinically sane and insane). And the line between the two is finer than one would expect. “Every sane person,” Boswell writes, “has to find every day some manner of accommodating the impossible, some way of covering up for the failures of the rational world. This might actually be a reasonable definition of sanity.” The book then, in its quest for truth, is almost outside of this project, embracing the impossible and unexplainable, the “states of being that have no name” and randomness inherent in life.  

Whether dealing with questions of truth or insanity, the overall bent of the novel is clear: it’s difficult to live in this crazy world, and even more difficult to make sense of it. So dive into Boswell’s novel of love affairs, messy friendships, family tragedies, human frailty, and things we don’t understand about ourselves. It can make you see the world in a whole new way.                     --Emma Cueto


Jim Candler is a promising therapist at the Onyx Springs Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Center in California. He owns a big (if ugly) house, drives a Porsche, and is engaged to be married to a beautiful young woman. He’s also in line for a big promotion at work, and has helped get his hapless childhood friend a good job at the clinic. Everything appears to be going perfectly, but appearances can be deceiving. In Tumbledown, Robert Boswell’s first novel in a decade, Jim Candler and his faux-perfect life take center stage. “He was facing a controversial promotion,” Boswell writes, “could not afford his combined house and car payments, hardly knew the woman he was engaged to marry, could barely keep up with his clients’ complicated lives, and had just signed on for his fourth credit card. Tick tock, his head was rocking. He wiped down the shower stall and sprayed it with cleaner. He squeegeed the shower door. The more uncertain his mental state, the cleaner his bathroom.”

Uncertain mental states propel Boswell’s subtly ambitious book, a sprawling portrait of a large, dysfunctional family of circumstance tied together by bonds of mutual dependence. Candler is a good-looking guy (but not  too good looking), and smart (but not too  smart). He’s a cut above mediocre, and that’s as sure-fire a formula for success in America as any. But he’s adrift. He is also a man stalked by his past, in both a literal and figurative sense. He only got into the mental health profession because he’s haunted by the suicide of his autistic brother, Pook. And then there is Lise, a former prostitute whose life Candler helped get back on track many years ago. She has changed quite a bit since then—new name, new look, new attitude—but she has never forgotten James Candler, and she’s determined to force her way back into his life by any means necessary, despite his having long forgotten about her.

Boswell is a man of the modern West, a spiritual descendent of the Wallace Stegner school of writing. He’s difficult to pigeonhole, though, and has gone off the reservation at times, winning a Phillip K. Dick Award for his 1995 book, Virtual Death  (which was written under the pseudonym Shale Aaron). In Tumbledown, the California landscape, while artfully rendered, takes a back seat to exploration of his characters, who all exist in various states of personal disrepair. Karly Hopper is a drop-dead gorgeous woman with an IQ of 65 and a childlike sense of the world. Mick Coury was a normal teenager with a Firebird and a good-looking girlfriend until schizophrenia incapacitated him at 17. Alonso is a serial masturbator whose biggest accomplishment to date was learning to service himself behind closed doors, rather than out in public view. Candler helps them to engage with the world, but he is in many ways the most damaged of them all. “How the holy fuck did people know what to do with their lives?” he wonders in one of his more self-reflective moments. “Candler gave them tests to help them see where their interests lay, but shouldn’t they know what interested them? Shouldn’t that be one of the things in life that was absolutely obvious?”

This is the same question that plagued many of Boswell’s characters in his 2009 story collection, The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards. It’s clear, though, that the only thing that’s absolutely obvious is that nothing is at all absolutely obvious. Candler can’t even decide which of his deeply flawed relationships he wants to commit to. After meeting his best friend Billy Atlas at a bar (formerly a Long John Silver’s) to talk about his amorous quandary, Billy gets to the heart of the matter: “Either choose Lise or quit thinking about her. If you’re thinking about marrying Lolly while you’re obsessed with Lise, well, I’m no expert, and I’ve had less than perfect luck with women, but I think that makes you a prick. You need to pick one and stay with her. It’s not actually complicated.” But for Candler, it’s the most complicated thing in the world. His motivations are a mystery even to himself. What this counselor really needs is a therapist with whom he can talk things through, rather than a network of well-meaning but poorly adjusted kids.

At first, it’s easy to get a little bogged down in Boswell’s Altman-esque landscape. Keeping patients, love interests, backstories and coworkers straight can be trying at times. But Tumbledown is worth sticking with, though, and it blossoms in surprising ways. The dialogue between patients feels natural, like something you would overhear at a bar full of paranoid schizophrenics just before closing time. That is to say, it’s hilarious, sad, messy, and often unintentionally insightful. Boswell manages to treat each of his lost souls—even the most shabby, offensive, and insane among them—with affection and understanding. And Candler’s is an important question: What do people do with their lives? For most of us, working stiffs and mental patients alike, the answer is less clear-cut than ever, but fortunately Boswell knows exactly what he’s about. He’s writing excellent books about the complexities, frailties, and triumphs of human relationships in the modern age.              --Drew Toal


Foolish behavior is a key ingredient of human nature. We tend to waste a great deal of our vitality pursuing goals of dubious value. Confronting this basic truth, writers have a few options. They can ignore it, and create characters who start out or become wiser and more heroic than any actual human being; they can get mad, and write nasty satires; or they can adopt an attitude of acceptance, finding their characters’ foibles amusing, hoping at most for slight correction. To risk a shakier generalization,Robert Boswell—the highly accomplished author of seven previous novels, three short story collections, and other work—is the third kind of writer. His characters are extremely foolish, and their foolishness is a big part of what makes them persuasive and compelling, but he rarely seems angry at them.

Certainly, James Candler, the most prominent character in Boswell’s new ensemble novel, Tumbledown  (Graywolf Press), does more than his fair share of reckless things. He is a counselor on the verge of being named director of the Onyx Spring Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Center, but when we meet him he is not exactly acting as either the calm fountain of wisdom or dull bureaucrat that we might expect. Instead, he is engaging in an impromptu drag race in a much too expensive car. We soon learn that he is engaged to Lolly, an acquaintance of his sister Violet’s, whom he met while in London for his brother-in-law’s funeral. That might not sound reckless, except that he proposed after they had been dating for only a couple of weeks, following some Skype sex in which her “willingness to flaunt herself” had struck him as “just so damn nice.” (The proposal, via text message, read “I llove yo.u marry me”; the response was “LUV U2 LET’S SET DATE.”)

The primary obstacle to this couple’s marriage—at least, the primary obstacle after common sense—is Elizabeth, who is currently calling herself Lise, “pronouncing it like a rental agreement.” When she was calling herself Beth Ray, failing to make it as a B-movie actress and working as a prostitute, she was very briefly Candler’s client. Now she’s reformed and living what appears to be a healthy life, except that she’s completely obsessed with Candler.

Boswell handles this love triangle with admirable good humor and sexual frankness. The novel is saturated in sex, often unhinged, desperate, and mediated by technology, but there is never any hysteria. Paradoxically, Boswell, a writer in his fifties, seems more sanguine about new technology than do many younger writers. If Candler falls in love over Skype and texts a hasty proposal, we never feel that technology is turning him into a fool; technology just helps him do foolish things faster. The characters’ desires feel so urgent to them that we often forget that those desires are absurd, and we turn the pages eagerly. The narrative sangfroid also works well for Candler’s memorably drawn sister, the grieving Violet, and for Billy Atlas, a ne’er-do-well childhood friend for whom Candler arranges a job at the clinic. We spend much of the novel wondering whether Billy will prove to be the moral center of the novel or whether he will make the worst choices of anyone, and the fact that he could go either way lends the novel a great deal of tension.

The novel stumbles in some of the subplots that take place in Candler’s workplace. The various romantic entanglements—of varying degrees of inappropriateness—start to blur a bit. So many characters lust after the beautiful, mentally handicapped Karly that we long to learn something about her other than that she is beautiful and mentally handicapped, and we long, also, for the novel to engage more critically with how Karly is treated. (Here, Boswell’s generally laudable withholding of judgment feels evasive). Also problematic—and occasionally threatening to turn Boswell into that first kind of writer, the one who wants to make heroes rather than people—is Mick Coury, a suicidal, schizophrenic patient at the clinic who flirts with sentimental Wise Fool stereotype.  Also flirting with this stereotype is Candler’s and Violet’s older brother, Pook, an autistic, brilliant painter whose early death casts a shadow over the novel. In Candler and Violet, Boswell has created a pair of lively and flawed siblings; the melodramatic backstory is unnecessary.

Though his individual characterizations sometimes err, Boswell’s overall vision does not. His forgiving attitude towards his characters keeps us reading, and finally teaches us by example to forgive their flaws and even to love them.              -David Burr Gerard


This is a crowded, tender, and captivating novel, the experience of which brings to the fore how reading itself can replenish our love of the imperfect beauty of humanity. Boswell (The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards) spins an elaborate web of characters, and once the initial effort of keeping them straight subsides, the reward of knowing them is especially rich. Therapist James Candler works with young adults of various psychological diagnoses and mental limitations while struggling with his own life. Yet it is the constellation of people around him that makes the book’s development so fascinating. When Lise was a client of James’s, she was a stripper. Unbeknownst to James, when he moves to San Diego, Lise follows, reinventing herself with him in sight and hoping for love. Lise and James do eventually find something magnetic, though it’s limited to the two weeks before James’s fiancée will arrive, an urgency that increases the novel’s pace. As James’s clients try to keep their own hearts in check and James’s indecision mounts, Boswell brilliantly cuts back to childhood and the revelation that James had an autistic big brother named Pook. These slow and precise memories hold everything else together, emphasizing the profound affection we can feel for even the most unreachable.


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.


Boswell displays immense talent for characterization and observation, the narrator moving seamlessly among more than a dozen named characters, all with some connection to the haunted and impulsive Candler. Time is elastic, the fate of one character suspended while Boswell moves his attention back to follow a different character through the same few days, hours or minutes...An impressive work.