Verdict: A powerful, deliberate novel that tells a gripping and unique story about the marriage of privilege and despair through a dark story about suicide, love, and the courage it takes to face each new day.
EXILE ON SECOND AVENUE by James P. Walsh is another book in a long line of fiction about writers and all the messed-up baggage in their past that makes them interesting. In fact, some might wonder if we even “need” another version of this sort of story. While that’s a debate for the English departments of Universities the world over, Walsh just told the story the best way he knew how. The odds were against it, but this novel is actually a worthy addition to this particular canon.
The narrative involves a brother, Michael, and his sister, Rachel, dealing with the latter’s impending nuptials. The paths their lives took after their father’s suicide were very different. Separate though they are, Rachel still tries to care for her brother. Like any struggling man, Michael resents this. Like any good fictional writer, Michael doesn’t encounter anything he won’t smoke, snort, swallow, or drink. This detail in the foundation of his character is the only one that feels like it is in there because it’s supposed to be in there. The substance abuse is there to add a layer of haziness over Michael’s many layers of despair. The net result is that it brings him neither joy nor ruin, and it arguably harms his character’s growth. As a result, the ending itself is frustrating, because we are left wondering what the point of it all was. To be clear, this isn’t necessarily a flaw in the writing, but rather the kind of endings that “real life” often give us.
Nonetheless, the characters are very interesting, especially Michael’s sister. The scene where Michael blows up a big opportunity after being pressed about his father’s death is a delight. It’s an equally satisfying and enraging choice on his part; one that both endears Michael to the reader and makes his situation undoubtedly worse. There are also appearances from his father that are shocking in ways that zealous literary readers might not think this sort of fiction can even pull off anymore.
Walsh’s prose is excellent. Too often literary authors overuse style to make up for bad plot or indulgent character asides. That’s not the case here. When the characters flash back to the past, it’s relevance is clear, and it helps balance the story. This is a book you want to finish once you start reading, which is all any author can ever hope to pull off.
EXILE ON SECOND AVENUE is a powerful, deliberate novel that tells a gripping and unique story about the marriage of privilege and despair through a dark story about suicide, love, and the courage it takes to face each new day.
~Joshua M. Patton for IndieReader