A Guardian and San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2016.
Joseph March, a twenty-one-year-old working-class kid from Seattle, is on top of the world. He has just graduated college and his limitless future beckons. But Joe’s life suddenly implodes when he starts to suffer from the symptoms of bipolar disorder. Then, not long after, his mother kills a man she’s never met with a hammer.
Joe moves to White Pine, Washington, where his mother is serving time and his father has set up house. Followed there by his girlfriend, Tess Wolff, Joe’s life falls into a daily rhythm of prison visits followed by beer and pizza at a local bar. Meanwhile, Joe’s mother, Anne-Marie, is gradually becoming a local heroine. Many see her crime as a furious, exasperated act of righteous rebellion. Tess, too, has fallen under her spell. Spurred on by Anne-Marie’s example, Tess enlists Joe in a secret, violent plan that will forever change their lives.
Shelter in Place is a stylish novel about the hereditary nature of mental illness, the fleeting intensity of youth, the obligations of family, and the dramatic consequences of love.
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In the summer of 1991 my mother beat a man to death with a twenty-two ounce Estwing framing hammer and I fell in love with Tess Wolff.
Now, many years later, they have both disappeared and I am alone here on this pretty clearing in the woods.
Alone, save for the tar and the bird and the other thing, for which I have no name.CHAPTER 2
I'd taken my father's Wagoneer in to be serviced. This was in late August, nearly two months ago now.
Tess was in the garden when I left.
Like a miracle, we had fat strawberries all summer long and she was out there filling a basket with them. I was dressed for town, standing on the deck, looking down at her in the sun.
I said, "I'm going."
She was kneeling in the dirt and, when she heard my voice, looked up at me, shielded her eyes, smiled and raised the brimming basket.
A few hours later, when I returned home, she was gone.
Her note was held to this table by a white bowl full of berries. They were still wet, as if washing them were an afterthought.
She wrote, "I am too various to be trusted. But I am safe and I love you. T."CHAPTER 3
This table, always too large for that little dining room in Capitol Hill, fits perfectly here. We have six of my father's cherrywood chairs.
Four too many. Or five by the look of it.
Before me are glass doors framed in pine and mounted on tracks so that there can be no separation between the dining room and our deck, our deck and the clearing, the clearing and the forest. It is an extravagance. In winter we lose heat.
We built this house to bring the outside in. I wanted as little separation as possible and that is what we have.
We can slide back the walls.
Our neighbors are miles away.
Through the glass I look out on our green clearing. Soon to be brown, soon to be white. And beyond that, maybe a hundred yards from where I sit, is dense, old-growth pine forest. The clearing was here when we bought the property. It's why we bought it. Why we built.
The clearing at the end of the road. Like a fairy tale, a children's story of good and evil and adventure. A knight, a damsel. A witch, two children and their great courage. One way in, one way out. No neighbors nearby. Just us and the animals. Deer. Elk. Moose. Owls. Hawks. Foxes. If you sit here long and still enough, you see them all. They come peeking out of the woods, poking their heads into the open space, sniffing the air. The elk, the moose, the deer, they come to graze. The others, they come to hunt.
It is a place we're proud of. This house on a hill. Ours. All wood and glass and river rock. One long rectangle full of light. On the second floor, like a crow's nest, is nothing but our bedroom and bathroom. All the rest is downstairs — a kitchen and a dining room and a living room all running together. There's a guest room in the back. A small office. Two bathrooms. An entire wall of books facing the fireplace. We built it ourselves. That's what we say, anyway. But, of course, we had help. Still, it's our vision. And a lot of our labor too. It is a place we love, a place entirely ours. It is quiet and calm. Which is what we wanted more than anything else. Quiet and peace above all. And logic, I think.
We wanted a place of good systems. Or I did. And that is what we've had.CHAPTER 4
Listen, I am trying to survive.
Days here I'm barely hanging on. Talking to myself. Talking to my parents. To Claire. To you.
I'm trying to put it all in order, arrange it into something with clear borders and clean logic.
First off, you have to understand this tar and bird bullshit. I'm nowhere if I can't translate that.
Second, there's no single word. That's the fucking problem. Or one of them.
I am trying to translate into language two experiences for which all language is inadequate.
I'm not going to tell you everything. You should know that from the start. I won't answer all of your questions. This is not every single thing. It is only one version. Please remember that.
Also, there will be no continuous rhythm.
We the erratic keep terrible time.CHAPTER 5
I was twenty in 1991, living in Los Angeles in a grim but glorious studio apartment with its balcony overlooking Pico Boulevard. Two beach chairs and a hibachi. My last year at Cal State Northridge. I was happy. As far as I knew, we all were. My parents in Seattle, my sister, Claire, in London, at LSE. The brains and ambition of our family. Aside from school, I was bartending at Chez Jay, a famous little dive on Ocean Avenue where rich kids and movie stars came slumming. More than once Claire told me to transfer to UCLA. Do something with your life. Sure, I always said, but never got around to it. I didn't much give a shit. Wasn't very curious. Didn't worry, didn't plan the way she did. Wasn't a snob the way she was. I had no intention of becoming Secretary of State. Lucky for the State. I was okay to go along, wander. I liked pouring drinks. I liked my wrecked Toyota pickup, the girls who came to see me at the bar, ruling over my little fiefdom four nights a week.
But out of the thinnest air, without warning, it arrived in my body.
A leaden thing, whose form and quality shifts constantly in both memory and present mind.
Then, the first time, its arrival was sharp and sudden. Came with the force and surprise of a solid sucker punch. Or as if someone had spiked my drink. Or pushed a needle into my arm, pressed the plunger.
I was on my bed, back against the wall. Me and my same constant self.
And then whatever it is took hold: a sickening, narcotic feeling of terrible weight. I don't know what to call it.
I never have.
There is that word they use, but it is severely insufficient and one I loathe.
I'm not talking about sadness.
I am not despondent.
I am talking about the body. I'm talking about invasion and possession. This is a physical thing.
I am not fucking blue. I am not feeling low. I'm not sad.
Look, one moment I was a strong, happy kid reading a book. And then out of thin air it arrived in the dead center of my chest: a dull, cold pain.
It knocked the paperback from my hand. It closed my eyes and there in the dark I saw thick tar inching through my body.
Then, as the pain sharpened, a blue-black bird, its talons piercing my lungs.
Say what you will. These were the things I saw.
It is both animal and substance.
There is no logic to this, I understand, yes. Nonetheless, I am telling you what appeared behind my closed eyes in that shitty apartment I once loved: creeping tar, blue-black bird, talons.
The weight nails me to the floor. It deadens my arms; it draws me down. The substance closes my throat. It pulls at the backs of my eyes.
Now I am accustomed to it. Now I have ways to fight. Methods of battle. But not then when I was so young, on that morning when it first arrived.
I didn't leave my room for three days. Made no phone calls. I don't remember sleeping. Only sitting on my bed, or the floor, or in one of those plastic-ribboned rainbow chairs on the balcony watching the traffic lights change, trying to decipher their codes.
And then this beast, this creeping invader vanished as quickly as it had come. The greasy film lifted from my eyes, the weight gone, the pain, too. The bird took flight. As if it had never been there at all.
I went back to work, and back to class.
I expected red wounds, dried blood, but the terror and violence of those days were like awful guests vanished in the night.CHAPTER 6
In the spring my parents drove down to Los Angeles in my father's Baltic Blue Wagoneer. Claire came from London wearing expensive clothes and a new haircut.
At dinner that evening we all watched her tell stories about her friends, about her job trading commodities, something none of us understood. It seemed we were watching a woman we barely knew pretending to be Claire. She was as theatrical as she'd always been, but now she'd become a person of accomplishment and confidence. As if she were the adult at the table, and we her children. I half expected the waiter to deliver her the check and the truth is that even then she had more money to burn than our parents did, or ever would. Our parents, Claire's audience, both amazed, thinking, I'm sure, who is this odd and lovely person, and what does she have to do with us? My father, catching me looking at him, his face so full of pride and wonder and love, smiled to say, look at this woman, your sister, where on earth did she come from?
Our mother, who was going heavy on the champagne, stood up towards the end of the evening. She was wearing a fringed wool poncho, red as fresh blood. She'd bought it many years before on a trip to Guatemala, a rare romantic vacation with my father. Claire recoiled the way she always did when my mother made herself — intentionally or inadvertently, it didn't matter — the center of attention.
"What I'd like to say," she said in her voice always too loud for the room, "is that I'm proud of my son. My son stepping into the wide world just like his big sister did."
Here she raised her glass, drawing the poncho up to the right, forming a stunted woven wing and revealing a flash of red satin bra. Claire, cool in some trim black dress, red lipstick, hair drawn back tight to her skull like those women in that Robert Palmer video, winced.
"First to my daughter." Now she raised the glass high enough to break the wing and reveal a spray of brown armpit hair. My father and I laughed and raised our own glasses, but Claire only gave a tight smile and took a slug of champagne. "And second and more important, because it's his night after all, to my sweet sweet son Joey."
Here I thought my mother might sing, but Claire raised her eyes from the table and if they could have killed they would have. In all the years of those mortifying stares, I'd never seen one quite so powerful, quite so cruel.
I think it knocked her back from the table a step, but even if that's in my imagination, I'll tell you one thing, she sure didn't sing. Instead she smoothed her palms over that unruly hair, lowered her voice and said, before slumping into her seat, "To Joe."
That night remains vivid for this scene, for my mother's performance, for my sister's mean eyes. Vivid because Claire was so pretty and assured in her new affectations, her new English lilt, telling us we must do this, we must do that. But more and above all, I think now, it is because I saw, or believed I saw in my mother's eyes, the dark settling talons, the slow-flowing tar. And this vision chilled me. This quick belief that within her lived the same thing that lived in me.
In an instant I began to believe, without evidence, without reason, that this punishing bird had flown from my mother to me. We shared it. Were its host. The great leaden beast was not only mine, but hers.
Listen, I am not one to see magic in the skies. I do not pretend to see the invisible world any more clearly than another person, but this, I am certain, was both premonition and prelude.
By the end of the night we were all watching Claire hold court and I was struck by a sadness so profound I could no longer eat. Was it that I knew then that my mother and I shared this migratory animal? Was it that I understood we were fracturing, our rare and resilient family? Or that we'd never been solid to begin with, that we were just four people barely bound together by fog and blood?
When Claire and I were young, my mother told us a thousand times in a thousand ways, "Nothing arrives out of thin air. There are precedents and there are signs. Always indicators and histories. Only an idiot or a child is surprised."
Well, it seems to me now that ours were whispers and suggestion. They existed within the realm of the magical, imprecise, formless, and here I am looking, there between the fissures, for that faint sparkle of the other thing.CHAPTER 7
Later, after our parents went back to their hotel, I drove Claire to Chez Jay. We sat in the last booth at the back. "Sometimes Mel Gibson comes here," I told her. "Sits right there."
I wanted Claire to be impressed — by the solicitous girls smiling from the bar, the locals who knew me, my position here as reliable barman, my fresh degree. I was an autonomous, self-sufficient adult. I am a man, Claire. Here is my diploma, here is where I work. But she looked around that place as if she'd been tricked into being there.
She shrugged and studied me the way she always did — with tender indulgence — and raised her glass. "To the graduate," she said, mocking my mother.
"Why can't you leave her be?" I said.
She shook her head and looked past me to the bar. "I'll leave her be when she stops making fools of us."
"She doesn't make a fool of me."
"Did you see what she was wearing? The way she drank?"
"A few glasses of champagne, Claire."
"Enough to show you her bra."
I changed the subject.
"Sean Penn, too," I said. "He's a nice guy. Tips well."
Claire ignored me. "So now what, Joey?"
In a few weeks I'd drive up the coast, camp with some friends in Big Sur, go back to Seattle, find a job somewhere. I had no other ambition, no further plan. Save for those three mean days, I'd always been happy. Was never restless the way Claire was. I'd never wanted other things the way she did.
"And then what?"
"Roam free." I laughed.
"You're a moron."
"Maybe I'll come visit you."
"You should," she said. And then, leaning in, "Hey Joe, I met someone. We might get married."
"What are you talking about?"
"He's very, very rich."
"You should see our life."
"How old is he?"
"And I'm the moron?"
"Don't tell Mom and Dad."
"Just don't, okay?"
"Who cares? Come visit. You'll see."
"Maybe I will," I said. "And maybe I'll put a bullet in his head."
She smiled and looked so far away and so much older than I would ever be.
Driving back I wanted to tell her about the tar. I wanted to ask if it was in her, or even if she knew what it was, but I couldn't muster the courage.
She hated being delivered to her expensive hotel in my truck, so I made sure to pull in slow, rev the engine, tap the horn.
It was the only power any of us ever had over my sister: our ability to humiliate her. The valets, irritated by the honking, waved me forward, but I stopped in the middle of the drive, made us a spectacle, got out and walked around to her side.
"You're such an asshole," she said. "My sweet bartending graduate."
I wrapped my arms around her and said, "I'll see you in London, you little snob."
But I never saw Claire again.CHAPTER 8
A few weeks later I loaded my truck, drove west along Sunset Boulevard to the ocean, and turned north. Then it was as if I'd never lived in that city at all.
Cut and run. Just like Claire. Just like my mother.
The cardboard boxes were fitted neatly into the bed of the truck. My father's old Army duffel. A blue plastic tarp covering it all, strapped down with a crisscross of orange bungee cords.
I'm in the empty apartment, all evidence of my former life erased.
"The past is dead," my mother once loved to say. "Sink or swim, kids. Fight or die."
I drove up PCH toward the future. My mother again. "Toward the future, Claire. Toward the future, Joey." Another way of keeping her children moving, never, not for an instant, glancing back.
"Joey" from a song her long-dead father once loved to sing. Not Joseph, not Joe. "Joey, Joey, Joe," she said and sang to me for so many years. "You've been too long in one place." Whispered as a lullaby and sung at great volume on so many car trips to the coast. Said it like some kind of prophecy.
"Joey, Joey, Joe. You've been too long in one place. And now it's time to go."
But it was my sister who got the message.
Me, I prefer to stay where I am.CHAPTER 9
When we were young, we had the fortune of a secure and constant life. My parents worked. Claire and I went to school. In the evenings we ate as a family around a rectangular table beneath a yellow light. If we made mistakes we were punished for them reasonably, with consideration. Those mistakes were insignificant. An occasional fight (me), a few incidents involving drugs (both of us), academic probation (me), vandalism (Claire), violations of curfew (Claire). None of it was irreversible. None of it destroyed us, or caused our parents any real worry. Both of them had grown up rough, as they often liked to remind us. Both had been poor, both just scraping by with parents of their own who had, in one way or another, abandoned them.
My father left for Vietnam three weeks after he finished high school. His mother had died in childbirth, and when he returned from war, his father, too was dead.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Shelter In Place"
Copyright © 2016 Alexander Maksik.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
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