Set in New York City and in a Buddhist monastery in rural Vermont, The Understory is both a mystery and a psychological study and reveals that repression and self-expression can be equally destructive.
The Understorythe debut novel from the critically acclaimed author of The Virgins is the haunting portrayal of Jack Gorse, an ex-lawyer, now unemployed, who walls off his inner life with elaborate rituals and routines. Every day he takes the same walk from his Upper West Side apartment to the Brooklyn Bridge. He follows the same path through Central Park; he stops to browse in the same bookstore, to eat lunch in the same diner. Threatened with eviction from his longtime apartment and caught off-guard by an attraction to a near stranger, Gorse takes steps that lead to the dramatic dissolution of the only existence he’s known. As the narrative alternates between his days in New York City and his present life in a Vermont Buddhist Monastery, The Understory unfolds as both a mystery and a psychological study, revealing that repression and self-expression can be equally destructive.
|Publisher:||Tin House Books|
|Product dimensions:||4.90(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
PAMELA ERENS’s second novel, The Virgins, was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and was named a Best Book of 2013 by the New Yorker, the New Republic, Library Journal, and Salon. The novel was a finalist for the John Gardner Book Award for the best book of fiction published in 2013. Pamela’s debut novel, The Understory, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Her essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in publications such as Elle, Vogue, the New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Millions.
Read an Excerpt
Many years ago, in a deli, I found flaky white bits floating in my self-serve coffee; the milk, sitting all day in a bucket of cold water, had turned sour. Since that day I have never drunk my coffee anything but black. Yet I look for those tainted curls every time: I pour, peer inside to reassure myself, then top it off.
Even here I am bound to my habits. I pour, pause, bend to my mug. All at once Joku is standing next to me at the end of the buffet table. He looks down, as if he too suspects that something is wrong with my drink. I move the mug away, toward me, and by the time I have accomplished this I’ve forgotten my most recent action. Did I already look inside? I think so, but it nags at me that I don’t know for sure. The glass coffeepot, suspended above the mug, is beginning to hurt my wrist. Joku is watching me now, and I become even more flustered and uncomfortable. To look twice is not good, not the way things should be, but I decide it is better than failing to look at all. So I glance in, confirm that the surface of the coffee is black and pure, then finish filling the mug and replace the pot on the electric hot plate. Joku moves off, toward the metal trays of kidney beans and homemade bread and peanut butter.
Normally his staring wouldn’t rattle me so much. I have grown used to it. He watches me in the dining hall, during chores, as we file into the meditation hall for zazen. He is so open about it, does not spy or hide. His head turns as we pass in the hallways. Without a doubt the abbot has asked him to keep tabs on me. For what if I am mentally unbalanced, a troublemaker? But today was different. Today Joku came so close that he nearly touched me.
He was the first person I met here, with the exception of the secretary. I was dirty from the night in the park and the day on the bus, and the red itchy blossoms on my neck and arms tormented me. Warily the secretary invited me in out of the snow, but I stayed under the eaves next to the large oak door with its brass doorknob while she ran to see what was to be done about me. It was only on the last leg of the trip that the snow had begun. When I’d left Manhattan it had been spring, but now, three hundred miles north, it was winter again, the land knocked back into dormancy. The sun was setting and I watched the spruce and firs below the hill sink into darkness. Then a small man in a dark robe came to the entrance. He had a broad, intelligent face and wire-rimmed glasses. I guessed him to be ten years older than I was, around fifty. “Mr. Ronan?” he asked. “My name is Joku.” He flung his hand toward the open door, indicating that I had been received, admitted. His gesture was too big; the back of his hand hit the door, made a leaden thud.
He led me through the simple corridorsunsanded beams, white plaster, flowers set in a wall alcove. I pictured Patrick passing through these hallways and wanted to reach out to touch the walls that he might have touched, but we were moving quickly and I did not want to call attention to myself. We arrived at a small office and the monk introduced me to the abbot, a tall man with a long, elegant head who sat at a desk bare of papers. The monk withdrew to the side of the room but could not seem to make himself unobtrusive. He shuffled, coughed, knocked over something on a table.
“Are you interested in our practice?” asked the abbot, resting his arms upon his desk. I had not expected him to look and sound so perfectly American. His voice had a Yankee timbre, the elegant head a Yankee frigidity. I answered that I didn’t know. I repeated what I had said to the secretary, that I had no home, no place to stay. I waited to be asked for more details. But the abbot only handed me a folded piece of paper and told the monk to find me a bed. And so I was taken to a room with four bunk beds and given a pillow and a small rough towel. Looking at the beds, I could already feel the nearness of the bodies that would lie in them tonight. Snow drizzled steadily outside the window. The fire under my skin brought water to my eyes and I slapped heavily at my arms, then pushed up my sleeve to show the monk that there was a reason, that it wasn’t craziness. His eyes widened. “What is it?” he asked.
“Nothing contagious,” I assured him. “An allergic reaction.”
“I will find something for you,” he told me.
The room was empty and quiet; the whole building was quiet. I looked at the paper the abbot had given me. It spelled out the abbey’s policy on nonpaying visitors. Short-term residencies would be permitted in exchange for twenty hours of labor a week. A list followed; I was to check off any areas in which I had special skill. Cooking. Computers. Communications. Gardening. And so on. Across the list I scrawled the word none. Then I erased thatbetter to appear usefuland put a check mark next to Gardening.
The monk came back with a crumpled tube. “Tch, tch,” he clucked as I patted the ointment on. A strange, sorrowful little noise. I sighed as the cool salve penetrated the skin.
“We rise at four,” said the monk. “Just follow the others.”
“My name is Gorse, actually.”
“Pardon me?” He stopped at the door.
“I said Ronan but that’s not correct. My name is Gorse, Jack Gorse.”
“Mr. Gorse, then. Pleased to meet you.”
I was afraid he would hold out his hand. The fleshiness of a handshake has always repelled me, hands slickly moist or hot like a furnace. But he only bowed, Buddhist-style, his thick palms pressed together. He told me to make myself comfortable, and added that the others would be back in half an hour. The lights would be turned out at nine.
It felt good to have a bed. I fell asleep before the others returned.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Jack Gorse is a complicated man. The particularity of his nature is revealed in the book¿s opening paragraph as he describes an episode of curdled cream in his self-serve coffee¿an episode that led him forever after to drink his coffee black and obsessively double check each time he fills his cup.We soon learn that he is also facing eviction from a rent-controlled apartment in New York City, an apartment he has illegally inhabited for years following the death of a similarly named uncle. The slow, cold war of attrition that ensues leaves Jack the only remaining tenant, and the architect hired to oversee the project his only human contact.The ever unfolding layers of Jack¿s personality reveal a man both intelligent and oddly naïve, shy and slyly voyeuristic, cunning and emotionally guileless. He is a fascinating man. He is also a quiet man, but even though this story is a first-person narrative, I would hesitate to label it a quiet book. The Understory crackles with the energy of compulsion and unrequited obsession that is slowly and meticulously revealed in a way that could be called meditative (for its gradually deepening understanding), except for the fact that Jack fails miserably at meditation. No, the true genius in the storytelling here is that Jack reveals his deepest self, without actually revealing his deepest self. He simply recounts, while we see what he cannot.In fact, it¿s this continual dichotomous tendency that serves up the book¿s delicious tension. Gorse is beset by a stubborn ennui that plays against a dramatic narrative backdrop of eviction notices, narrowly escaped fires, and a culminating scene of violence that is as sudden and unexpected as it is dramatically right.The Understory is a book that relentlessly and incrementally pulls you forward on intelligent tenterhooks till you slap against a conclusion that resonates long after the turning of the final page.