It gets hot here in Tennessee. And dry. But even in a drought year, to the stoic inhabitants of the Dust Bowl plains in the 1930s, this region would probably have seemed like a tropical rain forest. For nearly a decade, plains farmers endured the ravages of sudden, severe, dirt-hurling storms that destroyed their livestock and eroded the soil from the fields. When first-time author Heidi Julavits introduces a young family Bena Jonssen; her flirtatious doctor husband, Ted Jonssen; and little Ted, her newborn son into this parched, desolate, life-shriveling terrain in her unsettling novel, The Mineral Palace, the effect is almost Gothic.
With relentless Faulknerian images of foreboding and symbolism, Julavits presents Bena with a bleak environment, hostile to new love and new life. Some of these sights are merely dark oddities, like the dog with a missing leg Bena sees running after another dog carrying a prosthetic arm in its mouth, while others are more starkly unnerving like the thin, pregnant prostitute she witnesses hungrily sucking a discarded meat wrapper in the alley for sustenance. But Julavits skillfully weaves the sights on the physical landscape into metaphors for the perplexities and incongruities in Bena's life.
Bena has no desire to move from St. Paul, Minnesota, to the dusty town of Pueblo, Colorado, where her husband has accepted a job in a clinic. But since he is still dizzy, recovering from a mastoid infection, while she is "merely sore" from childbirth, she is the one who drives their Ford Touring Car across the plains. She knows her husband "looks elsewhere," but she observes his behavior towards other women without confronting him, and quietly begins to "look elsewhere" herself. Deeply troubled about her listless newborn, and plagued by the restless demons of her past, she becomes trapped in a perverse silence, unable to share her doubts and fears. Her little family is like the seed in the New Testament parable that gets tossed on poor soil what hope of survival can they have?But in Bena, Julavits creates a determined protagonist bent on securing at least some level of survival. Like the Mineral Palace itself, "built in 1891 to be one of the wonders of the Western Hemisphere" the Jonssen marriage is a decaying facade requiring more than cosmetic repairs, yet Julavits proves to be an unsparing writer, up to the exacting task of gutting and rebuilding. The Mineral Palace moves with the dark ferocity of a Dust Storm toward its wrenching conclusion swirling, obscuring, and destroying until its energy is spent and we come up at last shaken, but gulping the purified air.
Linda Stankard writes from Middle Tennessee where she enjoys shade trees and spring water with renewed appreciation.