You startyour journey in Bound,Antonya Nelson’s deceptively loose-limbed tenth book, careening down the sideof a Colorado mountain. Misty Mueller, a lapsed AA member, has driven off theroad while in the throes of a hangover. When we meet her, she’s dead. Her dog,protected in a metal kennel, is spared serious injury and escapes the ruinedcar. Lured by the scent of a nearby stream, she wanders into the chill of theautumn night.
Withoutits familiarity, the car evaporated from her attention, sucked into theoverwhelming enormity of the rest of the world. She dashed headlong toward thewater. Plunging in, she was startled by the current; she flailed and her eyesrolled, panicked and wild. She raised her neck, scrambled, and onlyoccasionally, and only momentarily, found purchase on the rocks beneath.
That’s a pretty good blueprint of what you’re in for asNelson sends you rocketing along in Bound,her prose as bracing and bruising as anything in that alpine stream. We learnMisty has left behind a teenage daughter, Cattie, who she has named after herbest friend from high school, Catherine. Though the two women haven’t spoken in25 years, Misty’s will leaves the rebellious teen in Catherine’s care.
While Misty’slife ends in Southern Colorado, where the author and her husband own part of aremote ghost town, the elder Catherine still lives in Nelson’s hometown ofWichita, Kansas. It’s the only place she’s ever lived. (It’s even in her name: CatherineDesplaines—Catherine of the plains.) She’s the wife of a much older man, aserial philanderer, and when she learns of her friend’s death and bequest, thepast opens up to engulf her. Cattie, meanwhile, surly and rebellious in a poshVermont boarding school, runs away and embarks on a road trip of her own.
The threads in Bound,start to knit together when Cattie and Catherine finally meet. Catherine, at aloss as to how best to engage the new arrival, takes Cattie on a tour of hermother’s former life. There’s Misty’s childhood home, there’s the high schoolhallway where Catherine and Misty became fast friends, there’s the diveapartment they rented, ground zero of a willfully dangerous girlhood. But it’snot so simple. Adolescent memories are overlaid with adult life, and every spothas multiple meanings: “For Catherine, Wichita was a big bag of looseyarn, ensnared connections that knotted together the past and the presentwithout clear cause and effect or pattern.”
Through it all, a static crackle in the background, runsnews and speculation about the self-named BTK serial killer who murdered ten peoplein and around Wichita. He’s at the start of his gruesome career at the start ofthe novel, and as the book draws to a close, some 30 years later, he’s beencaught. “BTK” stands for his methods—bind, torture, kill—and it’simpossible to ignore the echo in the book’s title. But Nelson gives BTK theslip, acts as alchemist and turns the noun into a verb. By the close of herfirst-rate novel, her characters, if not exactly free, are at least bound forsomething new.