Sunflower (Holland House Books, 452 pages) moves slowly forward, accumulating in its plain language the details of Michael’s uneventful life as a metal worker and sculptor. He and his live-in girlfriend, Jess, mostly talk about ordinary things, like what to pull out of the freezer for dinner, why the item in the freezer wasn’t pulled out in time for dinner, and whether or not Michael has finished the metal fence commissioned weeks and weeks ago. (He hasn’t.)
Michael wants to be brilliantly talented, but he’s no more talented than most of the rest of us. McMain writes honestly about his jealousy of a sculptor named Alex: “The artwork came so naturally to Alex, almost like he was simply wishing the metal into whimsical shapes, carving it out of butter instead of iron or steel. When they formed their partnership, Alex quipped, ‘Michael can take all the straight lines, and I’ll take all the curves.’” The comment still hurts. It is a testament to the writing that the reader knows exactly how Michael feels, and suffers with him.
When a mean, secretive neighbor dies without help that Michael could have rendered, Michael begins a guilt-ridden decline into drinking, depression, and hallucinatory terror. The mild unhappiness that was already seeping through the early chapters (with the exception of the first chapter, more about that later), deepens like a stain and grows to clinical proportions as the reader helplessly watches Michael disintegrate.
There is no gratuitous drama. No sentimentality. The slide begins modestly and its increasing seriousness is almost as unnoticed by the reader as it is by Jess. Michael is beyond noticing.
All elements of the novel are authentic: the New Mexico landscape, the nature of Michael’s and Jess’s jobs, their unsatisfying relationship, the corrosion of the minor talent that Michael possesses, and the secondary characters. Like most of us, Michael and Jess are without distinction. Forgettable, except to a novelist and to readers for whom life as it is lived is intensely memorable.
The book reminds me of an Edward Hopper painting in which unremarkable people who are engaged in unremarkable activities are actually fascinating because they remind us of ourselves when we’re not posing. (“Arms folded on the steering wheel, he tried to think of somewhere, something he could do to take his mind off things, to show that he was all right, that he was in control of his actions. . . . He came up with lots of ideas that involved drinking, or sitting alone in the dark. . . .”)
The novel is jolted out of its flat affect and accumulating melancholy by—but I don’t want to divulge in what way it is jolted. Let me just say that Chapter One of Sunflower shines a light on the entire story. The exciting cover art prepares us to inhabit the novel, while the beginning and the ending, as arresting as the cover, brighten the book and give meaning to Michael’s life and to all lives that, on the surface, seem hopeless. We realize, as we return more than once to the first chapter, that the ending is in the beginning.
Marlene Lee, author of The Absent Woman, 2013
“Michael watched them as they went, the vampire [metal sculpture] dwarfing them. He sipped at his drink, looking again at the vampire. He found it strange to be near it. It’s like meeting an old lover in the street, he thought. You know things about them that nobody around you knows. Where the mole is, where the scars are. And you can’t explain to anyone why it hurts.
“He knew, for example, that all along both sides of the vampire, hidden on the inside, were pipes welded in for the wiring to run through. He knew that Alex had cut his finger while working on that nose, had cut it badly enough to need stitches. That on the hem of the monster, the words ‘Bow-Bow Enterprises’ were etched in letters two inches high, visible now only to the bartenders. He knew the first of those chains had come out wrong, and still sat in the corner of his shed.
“Michael knew this was the piece that had ended his partnership with Alex.”