Raymond Chandler—“named for the writer of a book on a shelf in the room where he was born”—wakes up dreaming of his wife, Joanne, but the bed is empty beside him. He’s old and unwell, with an unreliable leg that gives out on him. Grown daughter Cassie, with whom Raymond lives, has hauled away the bedroom rug so he won’t trip over it. But the floors feel cold under Raymond’s bare feet.
This is their father-daughter dynamic in a nutshell. Raymond is facing the physical realities of old age, which includes discomforts both big and small, while his well-meaning daughter is oblivious to small comforts. She’s more concerned with the big picture, the enormity of which actually overwhelms her. Not only does Cassie have her ailing father to care for, she has her sullen, taciturn teenage son, Joey, who’s consumed by some private, inexpressible pain.
WELCOME TO THE DAY—the phrase Raymond’s wife used to greet each new morning—is a day-in-the-life of these characters. Cassie drops off Raymond at his doctor’s appointment, where he’s dealt the blow of a terminal cancer diagnosis. In a daze after the news, Raymond wanders off, boards a bus, and has a series of unexpected encounters with strangers—a young punk mother named Mary (the baby’s father is Joseph), a Girl Scout disappointed by her cookies sales, and a war vet working as a janitor in a church—whose questions and conversations prompt suppressed memories from Raymond’s life to come bubbling to the surface. Meanwhile, Cassie is summoned to the principal’s office: Joey’s been suspended for fighting, and mother and son finally have to hash it out.
WELCOME TO THE DAY sets up its mysteries—Raymond’s missing wife, Cassie’s missing husband, the secret Joey’s nursing—but the reader isn’t given clues, only dramatic confrontations and unexpected reveals. But it’s a quiet kind of slamming around, without the trashy fun of a soap opera, because author Keven Renken is so utterly sincere about what he’s doing. Unfortunately, that sincerity hampers the drama. The scenes all feel constricted, reduced to cheap takeaways. At the doctor’s office, Raymond reflects on feeling scrutinized: “Everyone was studying him so intently today. One of the joys, or sorrows, of old age, he thought. Everyone watched you either too closely or not at all.” This feels like an outsider’s idea of old age, not a lived experience.
There’s a niggling sense that Renken, in writing in narrative form, has compressed his more dramatic impulses. While this hinders the book’s success as a novel, it shows promise of a different kind: Renken’s real strength might not be as a novelist, but as a playwright. Consider the descriptions, which feel like stage directions:“The nightstand with lamp, clock that read 7:06, copy of Reader’s Digest from three months ago. Chest of drawers, bureau. Family pictures on the wall, many of them include Joanne.”
Conceived by author Keven Renken while he was performing in a play, WELCOME TO THE DAY remains limited in the conventions of that stage, yet it’s as a playwright where his undiscovered strengths as a writer may lie.
~Michael Quinn for IndieReader