The Blue Bowlby George Minot
The time is the 1990s. Simon Curtis, in his mid-thirties, is a painter ? a yearning, troubled loner still burdened with the unfinished business of childhood. He seeks refuge for the summer in his family's
A haunting debut novel about a psychically shattered patrician New England family and one of its sons, implicated in the mysterious death of his alcoholic father.
The time is the 1990s. Simon Curtis, in his mid-thirties, is a painter ? a yearning, troubled loner still burdened with the unfinished business of childhood. He seeks refuge for the summer in his family's house in Maine, and then, for the fall, in their place in Massachusetts ? despite his father's insistence that he is not welcome. Simon hides out in his old room, sneaking around unobserved, and secretly watches his father ? a remote, eloquent alcoholic who has never seriously noticed him to begin with, and whom Simon blames for everything, including his mother's death.
When his father is found dead, Simon is thrust into the center of a news-making trial, under the spotlight in a mad media circus. Instead of despairing, he responds as if life has never been better. In the past, he has always been alone, floating in the curious dimension of his art. Now everyone is paying attention to him. Now his life is happening, on a surprising and grand stage.
As the narrative deepens ? infusing Simon's tenuous grasp of present-day reality with his disconnected distress and the lost idyll of his boyhood ? Minot creates a gripping portrait of the disaffected child-man brought face-to-face with the dreamworld of his past and the frightening reality of the present.
- Knopf Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.95(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.20(d)
Read an Excerpt
My brother, like a bird, in his annual spring migration up to Maine, stopped off, as usual, at the other end of my buzzer in New York, wanting a place to stay for the night.
Simon, was all he said when I asked who was there.
His crooked grin when I opened the door broke my heart. A split wound in the bruised fruit of his big, lonely head. His troubled expression, as our eyes met and slid apart, was something right out of the silver memory of my own mirror. Am I like that? His nose is sharp, like a beak, unlike anyone else's in the family-as if sharpened by misadventure. He was panting, smiling. I could picture him rushing up the stairs, leaning forward, taking them two at a time with eager, tight, stretching strides. His clothes were dirty, red discount jeans, with his dick showing, yellow shirt with a pointed collar. His shoes were shot.
We hugged. He smelled like a homeless person, which he kind of was. He had his stuff, not much, in a black heavy-duty garbage bag.
He slid through the doorway as if pulled on a string, dipping one shoulder slightly as the other shrugged up.
I asked if he wanted to take a bath.
No thanks. Let's eat. I'm really hungry. I haven't eaten for like three days.
We went to a little Mexican place around the corner, fluorescent lit, bad decor, Mexican pop music blaring, really good fajitas.
This isn't real Mexican food, Simon commented in between bulging mouthfuls. He ate a huge, heaping plate, and part of mine.
I asked him how his painting was going.
Conversation isn't easy with Simon. He spends most of his life alone, and isn't used to talking. Though once he warms up, he'sfine. He can be effusive and sweet. Or he gets going on these really negative riffs. As older brother, I'm both lifelong rival and confidant-for-life. I used to explain things to him-our childhood heads on pillows on adjacent beds, awake, at night-how things worked. He runs his plans by me, or gets me to draw things out of him, as if for paternal review and approval. Then, of course, he resents me for prying, or judging, and answers in monosyllables, as if he's being interrogated. I'd just as soon not go into those things at all. He reports to me; but at the same time he wants me to butt out, let him live his own life. Which I do.
I asked him about New Orleans, where he spent, as far as I knew, the past winter.
It's okay, was all he said. Lots of rain. And stray cats.
We touched, barely, on baseball, Red, Timmy, and Bob Dylan's bootleg album.
Yeah, it's really good.
I asked him what his plans were, this being my role. Where he was going from here. Though I knew the answer.
North, was all he said.
I let it rest, and watched him eat. His agate eyes were bloodshot. His self-cut hair was short, a little nappy. He ate like a pig.
He wasn't supposed to go to the house in Maine-Dad didn't want him there-and he knew it. He was going there anyway-Dad would never know-as he had many times before. Dad always knew. The house in Maine is a summerhouse, left to Dad by his father.
Simon felt like it was his house as much as it was Dad's, and he felt like, Why should I pay rent somewhere else, where I don't even want to be, when the house is just sitting there, empty? It's my home. Too bad if Dad doesn't want me there. I'm going anyway.
This was their routine. Simon going and living in the house for a couple of months before Dad got there, maybe slipping back in when siblings arrived, then the full run of the place again for the fall, after Dad left. Washing, before the water was turned on, in rainwater gushing from a broken gutter, eating food left over on the shelves, bundling up with blankets till it got warmer. Dad hating it, but not really doing anything about it from his Massachusetts distance. Haplessly telling him not to stay there, leaving it at that. Shaking his head in dismay. Mostly avoiding each other when they were on the island together. When Dad was there, Simon slipped off to other places he could stay. Like at sort-of-friends', or good ol' rent-for-work type deals. Or out on Burnt Island, his salvation.
Simon was basically obsessed with Dad. His whole life was one big troubled emotional reaction to Dad. Sooner or later, when you were talking to Simon, he always came around to his catalogue of grievances against Dad. Plus the abiding list of wrongs, inexcusable offenses, totally alcoholic actions, the fucked-up parental moves, missteps, omissions: timeless in their immediate potency.
You know what they're gonna do? he whined.
They being Dad and his brother and sister, who jointly owned Burnt Island, having inherited equal parts from their father. Eighty-eight acres of pristine wilderness, smooth-rock beaches and dense fir forest, complete with wall-to-wall moss and needle carpeting, crisscrossed with narrow, crooked deer paths, and quietly populated with nimble white-tailed deer and the full range of little animals and birds native to an island in Maine-Mum saw a fox one camp-out night, returning from the outhouse-watched over by ospreys, circling on high, beeping down at you, and settling, wings up a moment, the mandatory weapons search, before settling, unseen, in their fat stick penthouse nest; plus all the berries and bugs, ferns and flowers, the black cake earth, the low-tide mud, the miraculous, unseen processes of growth and decay, the subtle arias of sweet smells you move through, the soft, mingled woods and beach sounds, made mostly by the wind, the water; the fog, like a ghost, forgotten when gone, and then, one night, it returns, its lugubrious voice, periodic, faraway, a lingering, alto om; the few choice sunny bedroom meadows, hidden amid the connected, cool corridors of the interior, and the many million-dollar views, bright, glazed blue, gray-day gray, out to the vastly air-conditioned bay, table to toy boats, and other fir-hatted islands, the views like open windows wrapped around the rocky perimeter, which, facing all directions, constantly eats the arriving ocean, as it steadily, spiritedly, stupidly, ceaselessly repeats its thwarted efforts to come ashore . . .
Simon loved Burnt Island. He felt that Burnt Island was his, too, as much as it was Dad's. More. It was his legally, like according to natural law, or like eminent domain, and it was his spiritually, especially. He'd stay in the little house out there, a little brown prefab cottage from the Sears catalogue, erected in the thirties by Dad's father, the grumpy, leonine Pa. Or to be precise, put up by islander workers Pa hired. There's a series of photos on the wall in Dad's side of the house on North Haven, showing the raising of the cabin. The barge that carried the stacked panels of walls, floor, and ceiling to the island, the different black-and-white stages of construction. Dad and his brother standing around squinting in their long shorts, skinny arms, and crew cuts, looking a lot like me and Simon in pictures taken on Burnt Island a generation later: Dad with his chain saw, us snapping, and getting snapped at by, dead branches, dragging away spiky limbs and logs he cut, grimacing in concentration, his forearms flexing, with a steady rocking motion, like sex, like a raucous guitar, modulating that gnawingly expressive, whining, monster mosquito roar.
Burnt Island, his one true home, Dad-allowed or not. North Haven was his home address, if he had one-Manchester, Massachusetts, where he grew up and Dad still lived, sure wasn't; and nowhere else really was, either-and Burnt Island was his real home, his God-appointed home in nature, on earth, in the cosmos: like a kid'd write for his address inside a crisp new, fresh-smelling, sharp-papered textbook. He'd live in the cabin for days and sometimes weeks on end-island boy: wake to the birdies, step outside onto the cool, wet grass, the perfect morning out there, take a steaming pee on the ground wherever, walk around barefoot, make some coffee, make paintings. He kept his food cool in a bucket lowered down into the perpetual refrigeration of the old well, overgrown but rediscovered by him, cleared out, and covered with a piece of warped gray plywood he got from the dump, to keep things, animals, and nosy people out. The well water was great to drink, cold and totally pure; it tasted really good, and was great to wash with; it was like soft water.
Dad and his brother and sister decided, the shadow council of evasive elders, without consulting or informing anyone else, that the cabin was a dilapidated eyesore, beyond repair, and it would be torn down. Simon was livid. He heard about their plan not from them, but from our cousin Didi's kid, Bear, who was hired along with his islander uncles to do the demo. Their plan was to cut the swing tree and another one down, felling them in an X over the cabin, crushing it, then come back in the winter and torch it!
They were crazy. The cabin was in good shape. Raised on little stacks of flat rocks under the corner posts, and the joists and junctures underneath, it was a testament to simplicity and perseverance, stolidly surviving, alone, quietly observing the passing play of the elements, down through the seasons, the decades. A musty chapel to the rustic ideal, old New England, pure Thoreau: a brittle sage seated in the purple evergreen shade, a hidden box camera patiently recording the life and light, the lack of both, the neighbor islands across the reflective or textured water, passing boats and birds, groaning, square-cabined lobster boats, sleek summer sails, side-gliding gulls and exhausted, waterlogged cormorants, pumping low over the water, prehistoric, like black arrows indicating the single direction of the past and the future, the blue wind wrapping around the world . . .
The windows, which could still be opened and closed, all panes intact, were always shiny clean, as if someone came and washed them, every time, before you visited. Spruce needles from the tree, from whose reaching branch a swing used to hang, outside the cabin door, had accumulated and rotted through the roof juncture. Squirrels had gotten in, and chewed lower parts of the paper indoor walls into confetti, but hadn't made the place their home. That was all the damage. The kitchen needed only a little help, a propane tank, clean the rust off the stove, get it going. Otherwise the cabin was in perfect condition, waiting for new life-or quite content without. There was no way Simon was going to let them destroy his home, in a like criminally destructive act of pure alcoholic-oblivious sickness. Dad and the other two knew how much Simon loved Burnt Island, and that he used the house. They'd seen the perfectly good mattress he got at the dump and dragged up there, flopping it over the Whaler and somehow driving it to the island. That was probably why they were doing it, like get him out of there.
So he came out of hiding and confronted Dad about it.
It's none of your business, Dad said, and tried to dismiss the subject, and Simon, by walking away. But Simon persisted. Dad didn't want Ginny to see-it'd upset her-so he hurriedly put a halt to Simon's hectoring by saying it wasn't his decision: if Simon got the other two to go along with it, he'd happily agree to let the structure stand, on the condition that Simon saw to the necessary repairs and maintenance.
So it's mine, then?
If you can secure James and Melanie's consent, you have mine-yes.
So all's I have to do is fix it up and it's mine!? To keep! Always!
This was his dream come true. Maybe Dad wasn't so bad, after all-all the time. He walked up the hill and talked to Aunt Meanie, having cocktails on her deck with Uncle Pete, with his white sideburns, who put up his hands and said in his throat-scratchy voice,
Whoa, I'm not part of this, when Simon got right to the point.
Oh, that old heap. She waved her hand at it. It's a hazard. We'll build you a tent platform.
Simon told her what Dad said, that he'd fix it up. He loved it there-
Her watery eyes enlarged in her large, magnifying-glass glasses, Melanie shrugged, which brought down the corners of her mouth, at the same time pouting out a glossy lower lip. They called James from there. Simon started in on him, and he asked to speak to Melanie, please. By the end they agreed, each acting like it was the other two who wanted the cabin destroyed in the first place.
Simon was over the moon. The cabin was his now! He immediately got to work fixing it up, which he'd kind of done, half-assed, before; but now he really did the repairs. As well as he knew how. He put a little skylight in the roof, using a perfectly good window someone threw away at the dump, and patched the roof with wood also salvaged from the dump-his, like, free store. He even painted the floor, and the inside walls and roof-slanted ceiling, white-as far as he got anyway. At low tide he'd carry his supplies across the mudflats and seaweedy rocks from the eastern shore of North Haven, when he couldn't use the Whaler, to the moss-padded paths in the woods where Mum and Dad were walking around on their honeymoon, forever young, Dad holding a branch back for her, Step gingerly, my dear, and he stood in the tall, black-columned shade, white sleeves furled to the elbow, with a cowlicked, freckled Simon on his shoulders, holding on to Dad's bald forehead with both hands, knocking his glasses a little off, as in the framed black-and-white photo in the downstairs bathroom in Manchester . . .
Walking back from the Mexican restaurant, Simon slid behind me when other people came toward us on the sidewalk, to let them pass. I didn't want to mess with his apparent new lease on life, but I had to say something, and said something like,
Simon, don't you get tired of sponging off the family?
His face went cold.
I don't have to stay here, he said.
That's not what I meant. But I do wish you'd at least call in advance, and ask if you can spend the night, instead of just showing up all the time.
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