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Epic, lyrical, and filled with filmic characters, The Vanishing Moon is an extraordinary portrait of a three generations in a 20th-century American family. Coulson's three narrators provide readers with a deep understanding of each member of the Tollman clan, following them as time marches on and seminal events in American history unfold.
Opening in Cleveland at the advent of the Depression, Stephen, the first narrator, recounts the loss of his father's job that forced his family's move from their home to a tent with no electricity or running water. The second section, in the voice of a woman in whom Stephen holds a romantic interest, focuses on Stephen and his older brother as they become young men and set out into the world, falling in love and making choices that will define the rest of their lives. The third narrator, Stephen's nephew, describes the two brothers as middle-aged men upon whom life has borne down.
Coulson unravels the story of the Tollmans with an acute understanding that one can never escape the past, that our minds are filled with "images that return to us again and again…forming a pool of doubt that swells over time and weighs heavily on what we think and feel." The Tollman brothers, sadly, are unable to escape their past; neither, suggests Coulson in his remarkable debut, can we.
(Winter/Spring 2004 Selection)
A haunting, powerful, lyrical debut about a family fallen upon hard times and heart-rending interactions; a novel one will not soon forget. Five stars for this one.
The Permanent Press
This is the steel of working-class, Mid-Western America described by a poet. What the story lacks in hope is counteracted by the beauty of the author’s narrative, which captures a fine balance of collective suffering and individual bittersweet memory. The story is a series of personal narratives, each describing the emotional knot of experience that holds three generations of the Tollman family together. Through one family’s experience, the book catalogues the salient historical events of twentieth-century America: The Depression, WWII, Vietnam, JFK’s assassination, the advent of the civil rights and Black Power movements.
This is Coulson’s first novel; it follows three published books of poetry and a play, A Saloon at the Edge of the World, which was produced in San Francisco. The bleakness of the story resides in suffering without reward, most poignantly in the case of Jessica, the story’s matriarch, who loses two children, her home, her husband, and finally her sight. Her painfully sad life ends without fanfare. She is disdained by her class-conscious daughter-in-law, and her grandchildren prefer not to see her because she smells of “urine and disinfectant.”
Coulson’s narrative is poetic in both style and content.... Describing The Great Depression, Coulson uses language and memory to soften a brutal reality.... The different narrative perspectives, along with Coulson’s detailed social and historical referencing, give this story authenticity of character and context. The choice of multiple narrative voices also lends itself well to the subject matter in creating a kind of collective voice of generic, working-class America.
Lara Williams (February)
Consider, for a moment, the people around you. How would you look-who would you be-if your soul and character existed only through their eyes? In poet Joseph Coulson's debut novel, The Vanishing Moon (Archipelago) this is the way we meet Phil Tollman-through a younger brother, an abandoned lover, and a teenage son. The Phil Tollman we see is at times adoring, brave, disillusioned, drunken, and belligerent; a melancholy figure defined by the choices he makes-and those he leaves unmade. With finely crafted characters and scenery, Coulson's epic depicts the working-class world of Cleveland and Detroit, following the Tollman family from the Great Depression through World War II to the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The graceful prose tenderly builds a story of humanity and tragedy. In the Tollman's world, reality can be as dark as a moonless sky, lit only by memories and dreams unrealized.
Minneapolis City Pages, A-List
Joseph Coulson's THE VANISHING MOON...explores human frailty with the simplicity and directness of haiku. Composed of four discrete sections, narrated in turn by different characters, the novel...achieves the quiet beauty of William Maxwell's finest work-generous, episodic, elegiac but not sentimental....The Tollman family, so entranced by familial dramas, so averse to public displays of passion and collective endeavor...lets the world go by without grabbing hold of it. Their tragedy is, in many ways, the tragedy of American life in the latter part of the twentieth century....Coulson serves up that tragedy without a hint of sermonizing. This is as real as realism gets.
The Tollman children--spitfire Phil, the eldest; musing Stephen, his shadow; charming but doomed Margie; and stuttering Myron—adore their lovely, competent mother and cannot forgive their lackluster father for allowing her to go blind. So destitute are they at the worst of the Great Depression that they end up living in a tent outside Cleveland's city limits, where life is as brutal and sporadically transcendent as the moody Midwest's meteorologic extremes. Assured and purposeful, first-time novelist Coulson infuses each surprising and evocative moment with great feeling and mythic resonance as he leapfrogs forward in time, subtly tracing the impact of the Second World War, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War on his emotionally damaged characters. Shifting between Cleveland and Detroit, and among several points of view, including that of Katherine, a brilliant pianist with whom both Phil and Stephen fall madly in love, Coulson writes with surpassing clarity and dignity about grief, anger, sexual passion, the need for art, brotherly love, and the resilience of good women, creating a somberly beautiful family saga.
I live in the city where my brother and I grew up, where we made our choices, and choices were made for us,” laments the no-longer-young narrator of Joseph Coulson’s first novel The Vanishing Moon, which will be published next month by New York City based Archipelago Books. “I go to the old places to make peace with what happened there, but then memories take hold of me and I twist and turn my body, trying to keep the past at arm’s length, trying to shake it off, feeling a grip that is strong and absolute,” Coulson’s working class narrator Stephen Tollman relates. A literate, if unpublished short story writer and chronicler of the Tollman family misfortunes from the depths of the Great Depression to the end of the 1970s, he has traded in the romantic dreams of his youth for the security of a job as an assembly line supervisor at a General Motors plant in Cleveland.
Novels about the struggles of working class American families are increasingly rare in the current literary marketplace, but Coulson—who lived in Buffalo while earning a Master’s degree in Writing and Poetics and a Ph.D. in American Literature at the University at Buffalo in the 1980s—has never been particularly constrained by literary fashion. In addition to three chapbooks of poetry, he has co-authored “A Saloon at the Edge of the World,” a full length play about William Faulkner and Raymond Chandler’s disagreement over how to adapt “The Big Sleep” as a screenplay that was produced and staged in San Francisco in 1996. More recently, he has been Editorial Director, Chief of Staff, and Senior Editor of the Chicago-based Great Books Foundation, where he oversaw not only GBF’s publications, but also its community based discussions of selected Great Books, including Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” which was the topic of a GBF sponsored event here in Buffalo in 1999. As "The Vanishing Moon" (which has already been selected by Barnes & Noble Books for its “Discover Great New Writers” program) went to press this fall, Coulson was teaching American literature in Paris as sponsored by the University of Toronto.
Set against the backdrop of 20th century American politics and popular culture, the novel follows the tribulations of three generations of Tollmans—a Cleveland, Ohio family cast into poverty, homelessness, and personal tragedy during the Depression of the 1930s. As a consequence of sacrifices made and not made, of foolish and shortsighted decisions, the family’s dislocation permanently scars and alters all its descendants.
More particularly, the narrative focuses on the relationship of two brothers—Phillip and Stephen Tollman—whose strikingly different responses to their father’s abandonment and the subsequent disintegration of the family leaves them full of inarticulate rage and mournful regret, respectively. Even as their lives and fortunes change in the relative prosperity following World War Two, their restiveness seems almost congenital.
By way of contrast, the novel introduces us to a succession of strong and fiercely independent women, including its most compelling narrative voice Katherine Lennox—a political activist turned jazz pianist who is beloved but unattainable by one brother, seduced and abandoned by the other. One evening a stranger in a tavern tells Stephen that the greatest talent of women in general is their “capacity to spend endless amounts of time with dull men. To spend it without being bored, or at least without minding that they are.” The comment echoes like a revelation to him, like an indictment of a still salvageable life.
For James Tollman, Phillip’s youngest son and a college-bound intellectual in the making who narrates the Viet Nam era portion of the novel, “Irony is the only faith in a fallen world,” but the house he inhabits is still ruled by retrograde emotions like guilt, fear, and self-loathing.
Despite the use of multiple narrators and a protagonist—Phillip Tollman—constructed entirely through the accounts of others, "The Vanishing Moon" opts for a traditionalist approach that will remind readers of classic authors like Steinbeck and Zola, or perhaps such contemporary masters of wounded male pride and self-doubt as Raymond Carver and Russell Banks.
Sunday, December 7, 2003
Written in lyrical yet quickly paced prose that carries the reader from the Great Depression through the Nixon presidency, this first novel follows a working-class family as the hapless father loses his job, forcing a move into a tent in rural Ohio. The mother gradually goes blind, her condition untreated because the family can't afford medical care. Burdened by guilt, the father disappears. These events and more are narrated in four sections, the first and last compassionately told by second-oldest son Stephen. As children, Stephen and older brother Phil are inseparable, but Phil's festering bitterness lends the novel an increasingly dark and brooding tone. The story continues in the voice of Katherine, a young woman who becomes involved with both Stephen and Phil; the story is then taken up in the turbulent Sixties by Phil's son, James, who witnesses his father's descent into alcoholism. The narrative is uneven but rich in historical context; Coulson movingly evokes the feel of Rust Belt cities in hard times. Recommended for larger fiction collections.-Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Libs., Harrisonburg, VA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
PRAISE FOR THE VANISHING MOON
"Coulson's richly textured narrative abounds in passion and wonder." -The San Diego Union-Tribune
"Affecting . . . Achieves the quiet beauty of William Maxwell's finest work-generous, episodic, elegiac but not sentimental." -The Nation