A central symbol in this short novel is a work of art produced by a Georgia slave. Drawn with ink on a large white linen bedsheet, it consists of a tiny perfect square at the center, surrounded by concentric squares rendered freehand. Because each square is larger, each is more imperfect, until at the outermost edges the shapes are no longer squares but vast chaotic wanderings. To narrator Mike Reed, the drawing portrays the silly, helpless tendency of fundamental things to get way off course and turn into nonsense. The perfect square of Mike's life is the accidental death of his wife and small daughter four years ago. Since then, as it has grown away from this center, his life has become increasingly aimless.
More precisely, he has been numb, paralyzed, virtually dead, treading water in an academic position he has little commitment to. However, in the weeks covered by his narration more happens to him than he has experienced in years, until at last he is seeking a final liberating aberration, which will enable him to break free of the old pattern. He is, therefore, almost consciously looking for trouble. He finds this trouble and perhaps the ghost of his daughter mainly in Flower Cannon, a 26-year-old student (Mike is 53), who is performance artist, painter, cellist, and stripper.
He finds his liberation or does he? at a religious service to which Flower leads him. Let's just say that even after what happens at the service, he still acts on a deeply felt need to move into the unforeseen. Readers who like an insightful and articulate companion will enjoy traveling with Mike Reed. He knows, for instance, that his grief reaction is not simple. As to language, how can one not enjoy a companion who describes a group of men around a casino gambling table as proud of their clichÅ½s yet full of helpless poetry and the atmosphere of a state-run educational institution as vapors of low-lying cynicism, occasional genius, and small polite terror ? The author behind the narrator, Denis Johnson, is an award-winning poet and novelist whose 1992 short story collection, Jesus' Son, was recently adapted as a feature film.
Don Smith is a senior trainer for the Great Books Foundation.