The Vanishing Moon by Joseph Coulson

Whereas we in the west speak of, and see, a “man” on the moon, the Chinese tell stories of and see a rabbit on the moon. Poet, playwright, and editor Joseph Coulson’s great first novel The Vanishing Moon (Archipelago Books, 330 pages) is hardly focused on the moon and yet it is, one might say, focused on the vanishing of beautiful things for which the elusive moon is a most, perhaps the most, romantic emblem: a unique book of pressed wildflowers; the innocence of children playing in the woods before they become conscious of a humiliating poverty; and the exceptional beauty of the unconsummated (preserving the sublime) over the requited (wallowing in the mire) sexual relationship. A good novel asks more questions than it answers and displays a sort of secret symmetry; that is more than the case here. Coulson’s compulsively readable multi-generational saga, a fugue of three first-person voices whose points of view and narrative overlap, is doubtless a powerful yet difficult way to craft a novel–as the intimacy of the “I” of each individual, pulling us into the depths of his or her consciousness, might seem to distract from the reader’s having a narrative center of gravity. This is not the case here, perhaps because the voices are partitioned among two sexes and three generations-tent-stricken poverty and the end of childhood innocence outside Cleveland during the Great Depression in the first part of the novel (my favorite), told by a young Stephen Tollman; the Midwest in the middle of the century, seen through the eyes of the intelligent and beautiful Marxist pianist Katherine (a love interest for both Stephen and his surly, fascinating,1950s-mold-macho older brother, Phil) in the second part of the novel, squeezed into shape by WWII; and greater Detroit in the era of the late-60s Tigers in the third part, told through James, broken Phil’s younger son, in the novel’s third, Vietnam-and-Summer-of-Love part. A shorter fourth section, set partly in San Francisco, returns to the voice of Stephen, now a grown man working as a supervisor in a General Motors auto plant, and still in love with what he can never have. Coulson’s fugue allows him to toggle between effects of extreme emotional intimacy, on the one hand, and panoramic narrative sweeps, on the other. The effect of the pulse-taking is that you feel you have had a genuine look into the cultural entrails–or under the hood, as it were–of the USA as it really ran throughout the whole middle of the 20th century. This is no mean achievement. I love John Fante (Charles Bukowski’s favorite writer, and author of Ask the Dust), and Coulson’s Phil Tollman–a stubborn man beaten by still more stubborn life–reminds me of them. Although Phil Tollman (who never narrates but is, nonetheless, the gravitational center of the novel) evinces less unpredictable charm than the Fante and Bukowski protagonists, his mold is quite similar-and because Coulson shows us so much more than merely a close-up of this captivating, never-say-die hard guy mold–he shows us the detailed world around it, the racial, feminist and social change that hardened it into its final form–his novel gives us the contrast, and context, with which to understand this secretly endearing American enigma. As the lusted-after Katherine, a relative sophisticate compared to the deprived, handsome Tollman brothers says while walking through the woods where their beautiful sister once played, “Everything is unbearably over with.” That is the nature of a kind of acute poetic consciousness, what Nabokov called “future memory”: she (although not my favorite character) sees, as they in the pain of the memory of their own suffering (their sister has died in these woods) perhaps do not, that even the presence of the present is fated to become a memory, and that that fate helps to constitute it, already always giving it, one might (getting a little carried away) say the melancholy melody of the moon. Coulson plays this sempiternal melody, with subtle panache and understated mastery, in the key of modern American history. Highly recommended (and much easier to get through than this review!).

Dorion Sagan, author of The Devil’s Comic (2000) and co-author of Pack of Lies (forthcoming).

excerpt

“The summer of 1931 was a season of dying trees. Had we talked to any of the farmers who lived nearby, we would’ve understood that his blight wasn’t a curse or an omen, simply the habit of a beetle and the fungus it carried. But in the particular stand of woods where we lived there was no talk of Dutch elm disease, nor any of the other plagues that preyed on bark and leaves. Instead, we took the dying trees as a personal insult, an emblem of our lives: the house in Cleveland deserted. Father out of work, and Mother going blind. The trees became a permanent feature of our landscape: stark, implacable teachers instructing us in broken dream, admonishing us, despite the promise of better times, that most of what we hoped for in life was impossible, that to believe otherwise was impractical, even dangerous. Most things that die whither away or we put them underground, but trees stay standing, rows of barren trunks that creak and moan until the onslaught of rain and snow finally brings them down. Trees return slowly to the earth, and so the stubborn shadows of their dissolution darkened our childhood games.”

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