A few years ago at AWP, I was on a panel with Michael Dirda. A question came up about writers’ prospects when approaching publishers and when their books enter the retail market. Dirda – playing devil’s advocate, he admitted – suggested that young, attractive writers are more likely to get the benefit of the doubt from publishers in terms of promotion, for instance. It wasn’t a well-received observation. He did turn the conversation toward a trend I find more troubling and disappointing: the difficulty mid-career, mid-list writers may have in finding a home for their work. I suppose by way of consolation we have a sizable selection of small presses, many of which do a remarkable job with comparatively limited resources, but they aren’t equipped to offer the financial considerations or simple prestige the major houses can.
I would like to imagine we will see an alternate track emerge, or become more prominent. I don’t mean self-publishing, which is still a very long way from a viable option for rank-and-file writers. What I’m thinking of here are University presses, those entities long known for producing scholarly texts. Some are also publishing quality fiction, though I’m not sure how many readers are aware of this fact. The writer Mark Merlis, whose debut novel American Studies (1995) was highly decorated, has a new novel due from University of Wisconsin Press early next year. You can read the opening chapter on his site. University of New Mexico Press is publishing a new novel by John Nichols, he of The Milagro Beanfield War, this month. And Syracuse University Press has William Loizeaux’s first novel for adult readers, The Tumble Inn, due in September.
Loizeaux’s memoir, Anna: A Daughter’s Life, was a New York Times Notable Book in 1993. He is also a highly regarded children’s writer. In short, he’s a writer with an established career, one whose work has appealed to readers for at least twenty years. And so we come to The Tumble Inn, a story about a man (Mark) and his wife (Fran), throwing over their day-to-day routine as high school teachers to start anew, running an inn in upstate New York. This despite the fact that their qualifications for the job are questionable. Mark notes that, “the ad did have, even for me, the sort of misty appeal of an alternate life,” but he plays it straight all the way. This is not a Reginald Perrin-type scenario, in short. They get through the interview on guile and luck (a sizable dose of the latter), and somehow pass the tests thrown at them by the months that follow.
Another stroke of luck, or something like it, leads to Fran’s pregnancy with their first child. That said, life at the Tumble Inn is not wholly idyllic for them. The gaps between what they know and what they need to know are apparent, but Fran excels at presenting a favorable picture of their progress. The board renews their contract, and their new direction takes on an air of permanence.
Perhaps a word on Mark and Fran is in order here. He reveals to us early on that Fran is the more resourceful of the pair. It’s her letter, full of creative interpretations of their talents and interests, which gets them an interview for the innkeeper job. He also lets us know that she’s the more energetic, engaging teacher. There were moments when I wondered whether that energy might have served the novel better than Mark’s voice, which while accessible is also quite mild. He explains his failings as a teacher with the following example: “On the board, I’d neatly outline in Roman numeral headings and alphabetized subheadings the causes and effects of, say, The Great Awakening, which promptly put the class to sleep.” The situation in The Tumble Inn isn’t as dire as all that, but the reader may at times wish for a bit more verve from its narrator, a little something beyond the tone of gentle recollection Loizeaux employs.
At its best, though, there are echoes of Richard Ford’s Bascomb novels. Mark is a man in midlife, looking back on a significant decision he and his wife made almost unwittingly. There’s a certain poignancy in that, a sense of wonder at his fortunes, good and bad alike. The first spring at the inn yields a lyrical recollection of an intimate (and wholly imperfect, what with the blackfly attack they endure) outing he and Fran shared. He tells it all and concludes,
But looking back, I don’t begrudge any of it: not the fun poked my way, not all the itching and scratching, not even the lopsidedness that made urinating a wayward adventure, not even the three days when it took a half hour to get dressed, when I walked bowlegged, when at Orma’s we got the strangest looks – What the hell happened to you? – and when at nights we marinated in witch hazel and Rhulicream, and still didn’t sleep a wink…
No, I don’t begrudge it. I’d do it all again.
Later there is tragedy – I don’t want to reveal too much – and Loizeaux’s portrait of a man and his daughter grappling with its aftermath is subtle and convincing. Grief can ravage both memory and our immediate perceptions, and The Tumble Inn rises to the task of showing us that. It actually brought to mind our most recent visit with Frank Bascomb in 2006’s The Lay of the Land, when a jarring, unforeseen catastrophe upset Bascomb’s comfortable life. The latter stages of that novel have always felt like one of Ford’s few real missteps to me. In fairness, I may be emphasizing the specific event too much and the significance of it as a mechanism in the plot too little. In either case, Loizeaux runs out the string in The Tumble Inn in candid, measured fashion, tracing Mark and his daughter’s gradual return to balance in life.
Novels like this and writers like Loizeaux deserve a home. Here’s hoping Syracuse University Press and its ilk continue to provide one.
— John McIntyre