McIntosh's `Well': a promise of voice and energy

August 10, 2003|By Martha Southgate | Martha Southgate,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Well, by Matthew McIntosh. Grove Atlantic. 288 pages. $23.

The press materials for 26-year- old Matthew McIntosh's debut novel Well state with great excitement that his work is "reminiscent of Denis Johnson and Raymond Carver." Right there, my antennae went up - while I'm a fan of both writers, they are utterly dissimilar except insofar as they write about disillusioned, suffering working and lower-middle-class white people. And so it is with McIntosh. He doesn't write like either of these modern masters and his promising voice is utterly his own - the similarity to Carver and Johnson lies only in the milieu.

Well is a promising first novel, if a flawed one. A kaleidoscopic view of the denizens of a Seattle suburb called Federal Way, it is daringly structured, containing nothing that could conventionally be called a plot. Instead, we are treated to vignette after vignette from mostly desperate lives, mostly in first person. Such as these sentences from the novel's opening monologue:

"Maybe not always, but a lot of the time. It doesn't matter where I actually am, it's all the same. For instance, I could be walking to the mailbox or driving in to work and I will get this thing - not a picture but a sort of perception, this sort of sense, in the same way you imagine the shapes of the walls and the furniture when you're walking through a familiar dark, room, that's how it is - and I am always struck with the perception that I'm there, at the bottom of a well."

This character, a woman, is never named, never reappears, and disappears into the swirl of characters that make up the book - as do myriad other voices. These intense, vivid monologues are both the novel's great strength and its great failing.

McIntosh shows a remarkable facility for capturing different voices, the way people speak and think in their most private moments, the circular, stammering way that inarticulate people describe pivotal moments of their lives. And some of the vignettes, like the stunning "Fishboy," reverberate in the way of fine short stories. But because he's chosen to give no narrative structure to the book - there isn't even a clear link beyond the shared community of the many nameless or nearly nameless characters - I put down the book not entirely satisfied. It is as if I'd attended a party with some interesting people - but had not been offered the chance to really know them.

It's a shame too, because McIntosh is quite talented and shows signs, within the short narratives, of being able to build and sustain a longer narrative. I understood the impulse toward the kaleidoscopic and respected it, but such glancing treatment of so many lives ends up lessening the impact of each.

The book has the energy of a young man trying to say everything at once as fully as he can manage. And a desire to experiment is also clearly in evidence, as in the section entitled "Gunman" which takes the form of a highly elaborated news story and is typeset to run down the middle of the page in newspaper-column style.

Well is extremely involving and interesting - McIntosh is a writer to keep an eye on. It remains to be seen if his promise can be put in the service of a fully imagined novel.

Martha Southgate has been a staff writer for the New York Daily News and the magazines Premiere and Essence. Other work by her has been widely published. Her two novels are The Fall of Rome (2002) and Another Way to Dance (1996).

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