The Washington Post
The Flying Troutmans: A Novelby Miriam Toews
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Meet the Troutmans. Hattie’s boyfriend has just dumped her, her sister Min’s back in the psych ward, and Min’s kids, Logan and Thebes, are not talking and talking way too much, respectively. Then there’s the past, in which Min tried to kill Hattie once and to kill herself a lot, in which Min threw the kids’ father out of the house, in which Hattie dropped out of school, in which Logan and his friends kidnapped a friend and drove around town with him in the trunk, and in which Thebes frequently impersonated their insane mom in order to cut class.
When Hattie returns to take care of her niece and nephew, she’s rapidly freaked out by the realization that the responsibility is in fact far greater than she’d expected, and she decides to take the kids in the family van to find their father, last heard to be running an idiosyncratic art gallery in South Dakota. What ensues is a remarkable journey across the United States, as aunt and kids discover one another to be both far crazier and far more normal than any of them thought.
The Washington Post
A road novel helped along by a lovably nutty cast, Toews's latest (after A Complicated Kindness) follows a ragtag crew as they crisscross America. Hattie, recently dumped in Paris by her "moody, adjective-hating boyfriend," returns home to Canada after receiving an emergency phone call from her niece. Turns out, Hattie's sister, Min, is back in the psych ward, and her kids, 11-year-old Thebes and 15-year-old Logan, are fending for themselves. Thus the quirky trio-purple-haired, wise-beyond-her-years Thebes, recently expelled brother Logan and overwhelmed Hattie-embark on a road trip to the States to find the kids' long-missing father. What follows is a Little Miss Sunshine-like quest in which the characters learn about themselves and each other as they weather car repairs, sleazy motel rooms and encounters with bizarre people. Toews's gift for writing precocious children and the story's antic momentum redeem the familiar set-up, and if the ending feels a bit rushed, it's largely because it's tough to let Toews's characters go. (Oct.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The Troutman world is falling apart-again. Mentally ill Min is bed-ridden and suffering from paranoid delusions; her 15-year-old son, Logan, is in trouble at school; and her 11-year-old daughter, Thebes, is trying and failing to hold it all together. Enter a reluctant and clueless Aunt Hattie, recently dumped by her boyfriend in the City of Light, and the stage is set for this latest book by Toews (Boy of Good Breeding). After the suicidal Min is carried to the hospital, Hattie decides to take the kids on a road trip across the Canadian border into America to find the children's AWOL father. The odyssey is laced with moments of grief and dotted with the quirky places, people, and incidents one might expect to find on a circuitous journey through the hinterlands of the vast American West. Ultimately, the long road leads to the beginning of healing and the faith and strength to keep carrying on. Engaging, humorous, grim, and redemptive, this is essential reading; recommended for public libraries.
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Read an Excerpt
yeah, so things have fallen apart. A few weeks ago I got a collect call from my niece, Thebes, in the middle of the night, asking me to please come back to help with Min. She told me she’d been trying to take care of things but it wasn’t working any more. Min was stranded in her bed, hooked on blue torpedoes and convinced that a million silver cars were closing in on her (I didn’t know what Thebes meant either), Logan was in trouble at school, something about the disturbing stories he was writing, Thebes was pretending to be Min on the phone with his principal, the house was crumbling around them, the back screen door had blown off in the wind, a family of aggressive mice was living behind the piano, the neighbours were pissed off because of hatchets being thrown into their yard at all hours (again, confusing, something to do with Logan) . . . basically, things were out of control. And Thebes is only eleven.
I told her I’d be there as soon as I could. I had no choice. There was no question. Our parents are dead. Min didn’t have anybody else. And in just about every meaningful way, neither did I. Admittedly, I would have preferred to keep roaming around Paris pretending to be an artist with my moody, adjective-hating boyfriend, Marc, but he was heading off to an ashram in India anyway and said we could communicate telepathically. I tried it a couple of days before he left. I love you, don’t go, I said silently, without moving my lips. He was standing next to me, trying to photograph a gargoyle. You’re a little in my way, he said. Can you move? No amount of telepathy worked with him, but maybe youhave to be thousands of miles away from someone in order for your thoughts to work up the speed and velocity required to hit their target.
At the airport, Thebes came running over to me dressed entirely in royal blue terry cloth, short shorts and cropped top, and covered in some kind of candy necklace powder. The empty elastic was still around her throat. Or maybe she wore that thing all the time. She had fake tattoos all over her arms and her hair was intense purple, matted and wild, and she melted into me when I put my arms around her and tried to lift her off the ground.
Hey, you crazy kid, I said. How are you? She couldn’t talk because she was crying too hard. How are you, Thebie? I asked again. How are things? I didn’t have to ask her. I had a pretty good idea. I let her wrap herself around me and then I carried her over to a plastic airport chair, sat down with her sprawled in my lap, all arms and legs, like a baby giraffe, and let her cry.
How’s the songwriting going? I finally whispered in her ear. I really liked that line . . . take a verse, Mojo . . . you know? I said. She was always e-mailing me her lyrics and cc’ing David Geffen on them.
She frowned. She wiped the snot off her face with the back of her hand, then onto her shorts. I’m more into martial arts now, and yo-yoing, she said. I need to get out of my head.
Yeah, I said. Using your kung fu powers for good?
Well, she said, I feel good when I flip people.
Hey, I said, where’s your brother?
She told me he was outside waiting in the van because he didn’t know how to work the parking and also he didn’t actually have his driver’s licence, only his learner’s, he’s fifteen, he’s all jacked up on rebellion and whatever, he just wanted to wait in the van and listen to his music.
We headed for the exit and kind of stumbled around, falling over each other. Thebes kept her arm wrapped around my waist and tried to help me with my bag. All I had was one large backpack. I didn’t know how long I’d be staying but it didn’t really matter anyway. I’d lost my boyfriend and didn’t care about my job and there was no reason to go back to Paris. I didn’t own anything besides books, and Marc could keep those if he wanted to.
It was sunny and warm and the sky was a sharp, cartoony blue compared to the wet clay skies of Paris, and there was Logan sitting in their beat-up van staring straight ahead at something, not us, music blasting from inside, like the van was a giant Marshall amp. Thebes ran up to the van and threw herself against the windshield. Logan snapped out of his rock ’n’ roll reverie for a second and smiled. Then he got out of the van and walked, glided, over to me and gave me a big hug with one arm and asked me how it was going.
All right, I said, how about you?
Mmmm, he said. He shrugged.
Hey, what’s this? I asked him. I grabbed his arm and squeezed his bicep.
Yeah, right, said Thebes.
And, dude, your pants! I said. Did you steal them from Andre the Giant? I snapped the elastic band on his boxers. Logan opened the door to the van and threw my stuff in.
How was Paris? he asked.
What? I said. Oh, Paris?
Yeah, he said. How was it?
Thebes turned down the volume on the music. Then she told me I should drive instead of Logan. She said she’d been planning her funeral on the way there.
I got dumped, I said.
No way! said Logan.
Well, yeah, I said.
You can’t get dumped in Paris, said Logan. Isn’t it supposed to be all–
By a guy or a girl? asked Thebes.
A guy, I said.
Logan stared hard at Thebes for a few seconds. He said you were gay, she said.
No I didn’t, said Logan.
You totally did! said Thebes.
Okay, Thebes, listen, said Logan. I didn’t–
Hey, I said. It’s okay. It really doesn’t matter. Really. But it was a guy.
But you’re not that old, said Thebes, right? You can still find someone if you look hard. How old are you?
Twenty-eight, I said.
Okay, twenty-eight, she said. She thought for a second. You have like two years, she said. Maybe you should dress up more, though.
Logan ended up driving back to their house because I didn’t know how to tell him not to and because he hadn’t seemed interested in relinquishing control of the wheel anyway. Logan and Thebes yelled at each other all the way back, the music cranked the whole time.
Thebes: Stay in your lane, moron!
Logan: Don’t lose your fucking shit, man!
Thebes: I don’t want to die, loser! Use two hands!
Logan: Do NOT grab the steering wheel!
Then Thebes went into this strange kind of commentary thing she does, quoting the imaginary people in her head. This time it was a funeral director, I think. She said: With an impact this severe there is not a hope of reconstructing this kid’s face. She banged the back window with her fist.
What was that? I asked her.
The lid of my coffin slamming down, she said. Closed casket. I’ll be unrecognizable anyway.
It was great to see the kids again. They’d changed a bit, especially Logan. He was a young man now, not a child. More on his mind, maybe, but with less compulsion to share it. Thebes was more manic than the last time I’d seen her. I knew what that was about. It’s hard not to get a little hysterical when you’re trying desperately to keep somebody you love alive, especially when the person you’re trying to save is ambivalent about being saved. Thebes reminded me of myself when I was her age, rushing home from school ahead of Min so I could create the right vibe, a mood of happiness and fun that would sustain her for another day, or so I thought. I’d mentally rehearse what I thought were amusing anecdotes to entertain her, make her laugh. I didn’t know then that all my ridiculous efforts only brought her further down. Sometimes she would laugh or applaud half-heartedly, but it was always with an expression that said, yeah, whatever, Hattie, nice try, but everything is bullshit.
My birth triggered a seismic shift in my sister’s life. The day I was born she put her dress on backwards and ran away towards a brighter future, or possibly towards a brighter past. Our parents found her in a tree next door. Had she been planning to jump? She’s been doing that ever since, travelling in two opposite directions at once, towards infancy and death. I don’t know exactly what it was about me. By all accounts before I existed Min was a normal little girl, normal enough. She could pick a direction and stick with it. Our family photo albums are filled, halfway, with shots of Min laughing and smiling and enjoying life. And then, suddenly, I’m in the picture and Min’s joy evaporates. I’ve spent hours staring at those photos trying to understand my sister. Even in the ones in which I don’t appear it’s easy to see by Min’s expression that I am just beyond the lens, somewhere nearby.
Min’s had good days, some inexplicable breaks from the madness, periods of time where she functions beautifully and life is as smooth as glass, almost. The thing I remember most clearly about Cherkis, Thebes’s and Logan’s dad, is how nuts he was about Min and how excited he’d get when Min was on the up-and-up, taking care of business and acting normal. I liked that about him, but it also broke my heart because he had no idea of the amount of shit that was about to fly. Eventually, though, he did come to understand, and he did what I did, and what so many others in her life have done.
Min had a vague notion of where he’d gone. At first it was Tokyo, about as far away as you can get from here without being on your way back. He moved around the Pacific Rim, and then Europe for a while, South America, and then South Dakota. He’d call sometimes to see how the kids were doing, how Min was doing, if she wanted him to come back. No, she didn’t, she said, every time. And if he tried to take the kids she’d kill herself for real. We didn’t know whether this was a bluff or not, but nobody wanted to challenge it. They were all she had, she told him. Cherkis wasn’t the type of guy to hire a lawyer and fight for custody. He told Min he’d wait until the kids were old enough to decide for themselves and take things from there. He didn’t want to rock Min’s boat. He didn’t want anybody getting hurt.
I moved to Paris, fled Min’s dark planet for the City of Lights. I didn’t want to leave her and the kids but the truth is she scared me and I thought she might be better off without me, too. Especially if I was the embodiment of her particular anguish. It had been hard to know whether to stay or go.
It’s impossible to move through the stages of grief when a person is both dead and alive, the way Min is. It’s like she’s living permanently in an airport terminal, moving from one departure lounge to another but never getting on a plane. Sometimes I tell myself that I’d do anything for Min. That I’d do whatever was necessary for her to be happy. Except that I’m not entirely sure what that would be.
So the next best thing to being dead was being far away, at least as far as Paris. I had a boyfriend, Marc, and a job in a bookstore, and occasionally I’d go home, back to Manitoba, to Min and Thebes and Logan, for Christmas or the odd birthday, or to help with Min if she was in a really bad patch, but of course that was complicated because I never knew whether I should be there or not.
I wanted to be an artist, in Paris, or a psychiatrist. Sometimes I’d haul a giant pad of sketch paper and some charcoal pencils to the square in front of the Louvre or wherever the tourists were and I’d offer to sketch them for free. I didn’t feel right about charging anybody, because I wasn’t really doing a good job. In every sketch, it didn’t matter if I was drawing the face of a man or a woman or a kid, I’d include a detail from Min’s face, from what I could remember at that precise moment. Sometimes it was the shape of her eyebrows, or her wide lips, or a constellation of tiny freckles, or even just a shadow beneath the cheekbone. The people I sketched were always slightly confused and disappointed when I showed them my work, I could tell, but most of them were kind, especially because I didn’t expect any payment.
Our father died in a drowning accident in Acapulco when Min and I were kids. He drowned trying to save us. We’d been racing and had swum out farther than we should have and Min had started panicking, screaming for help. The current was strong and we couldn’t get back to the shore no matter how hard we pushed against the water. I remember yelling at Min to move sideways and to let go of me. After that, my memory of events is blurry. I have a feeling that Min was pushing me down, under water. I think that I remember her hand on my head, or on my shoulder, but maybe I’m wrong. Our mother told us that Dad had heard our screams and had swum out to get us, but that he too had got caught in the undertow and disappeared. They said it was a riptide. Other people on the beach eventually grabbed a boat from somewhere and rescued us, but by then Dad was gone. Min was fifteen and I was nine. They left us lying in the sun on the beach, crying and vomiting up salt water, while they searched for him.
Meet the Author
Miriam Toews is the author of three previous novels: Summer of My Amazing Luck; A Boy of Good Breeding and A Complicated Kindness (winner of the 2004 Governor’s General Award for fiction) and one work of non-fiction: Swing Low: A Life. She lives in Winnipeg.
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