In Vox Populi: A Novel of Everyday Life (Texas Review Press, 211 pages) an unnamed narrator endures various brief encounters with strangers while out on errands—waiting for, paying for, or ordering something. Clay Reynolds must have been keeping a journal for years because his little tales ring true in their preposterousness. Truth is stranger than fiction. It is hard to believe people can be so rude, so tactless, so pushy, so dumb, and yet people are. Usually the unrelated event described in each chapter involves some implausibly insensitive and very loud person disrupting the normal course of humdrum business with performances that are as outrageous as they are unfortunately common. We’ve all have been shocked and appalled to witness such scenes in our own daily lives, and once home we say to our spouses, You’ll never believe what this crazy lady did at the grocery store, etc.
The long-suffering narrator of Vox Populi reports with almost no commentary (the actions of these people speak for themselves) and virtually no condemnation. His restraint is commendable; his occasional small acts of kindness chivalric (e.g., he accepts the blame for smoking in a waiting room to protect an irresponsible young mother), and his general non-interventionism is quite remarkable. Although the reader never learns much of anything about him and he does not do much of anything other than just report, the invisible narrator somehow becomes real hero, a model of the virtues of patience, tolerance and empathy.
In some ways, the narrator is just a device for Reynolds’ characters to interact with, though “interact” is probably too strong a word because the narrator assumes quite passive roles. Mostly he is just trying to get away from the situation or hoping it will end soon. He rarely speaks unless asked a direct question. When he does give an answer, he usually “offers” it; he doesn’t “assert” or “retort.” He is as non-confrontational as can be. In very few instances, he plays more of an active role; for example, when a cashier won’t let a woman through the express line because she has too many items, the narrator buys the additional items for her, not out of charity, but just to get line going again. The few actions he does take tend to have the function of temporarily eliminating the kink that has disrupted the normal flow of events. Never allowing people run all over him, he matter-of-factly states his case when pushed. He does his best to manage dysfunction and he clearly understands and accepts the fact that the problems he describes will never be finally solved. Many of the stories involve rigid behavior, the tendency to understand a rule too narrowly, failure to communicate, total lack of empathy, and inability to see oneself as others do.
Despite the fact that Reynolds has created the narrator for this very limited and purely functional role, the reader finds him quite likeable. Rare for a first person narrator, he is almost completely without ego. And yet a personality blooms in the negative spaces and instances of inaction. These stories illustrate, for me, the only valid instance of the Derridean idea that an absence can suggest a presence. What makes this magical creation exist is the artistry of Reynolds’ keen observations and his fascination with the drama that is everyday life.
The centerpiece of the narrative, literally occurring in the middle of the book, is “The Neighbors,” the only story in which the narrator’s perspective is in the foreground and the dialog and descriptions of others’ actions are enveloped in his interpretations. Abandoning his usual practice of describing strangers, in this story Reynolds describes the narrator’s next-door neighbors, an extended family whose main pastime seems to be rearranging the parked cars in the driveway:
Each adult member of the family has individual transportation. They routinely park between eight and ten cars, pickups, minivans and SUVs nose-to-tail on the narrow concrete driveway that’s just long enough to accommodate only about three or four economy-sized automobiles. They jam them all in by double parking with outboard wheels resting on the well-rutted grass and sometimes mud on either side of the drive. As a matter of observable policy, none shares driving privileges with another; and invariably, whoever needs to go somewhere is in the very front of this stationary parade; merely watching somebody run into town for a milkshake or extra-large frozen drink and a box of doughnuts (all apparent staples of their diet) is occasion for a flurry of activity that soon devolves into a slapstick entertainment. It often compels me to come out and set up a lawn chair to watch.
Without warning and at any given time of the day or night, six or seven or more motorists-in-residence are apt to spill out of the house in various forms of undress, sometimes wearing nothing more than a bath towel or unnecessarily skimpy pajamas, amidst an oral thunderstorm of shouts and yells and the jangles of keys and all fire up their individual engines. They then stand around the idling vehicles, shouting instruction no one heeds into the thin air, and snarling threats if their orders are not carried out entirely and immediately. Further cautions are randomly and loudly offered about driving onto the grass, running over the mailbox, basketball goal, or faded plastic jungle gym inexpertly assembled for the amusement of the younger residents and visitors, who have consistently ignored it, or crushing one of the water-starved shrubs hopelessly trying to find purchase alongside the narrow drive as they attempt to back out all of the conveyances into the small cul-de-sac and then pull them back in according to some mysterious but apparently pre-determined order.
Although the neighbors (like the reader) know virtually nothing about the narrator and have never bothered to ask, he knows a lot about them, more by listening and observing than direct interaction.
Whenever I’m out front, he [the patriarch] generally hails me and guilelessly fills me in on their latest escapades and adventures. I actually know more about them, their health problems, financial difficulties, automotive repairs, various marital dilemmas, legal wrangling and vocational failures than I do about the affairs of my own family.
Although his descriptions of the neighbors are not flattering, the narrator shows no animosity toward them.
…they provide me with constant amusement and a view of the world that I might not otherwise have. In a way, I envy them. Boisterous and noisy though they are, disorganized and chaotic and frequently woeful though their lives appear to be, they seem to find in themselves a harmony of familial bliss that is nothing less than enviable. I think there is profound love there, and I’m sure there’s compassion, understanding, toleration, and acceptance that goes far beyond what most people—myself included—ever come to know.
So whenever the slamming doors and firing up of engines signals another round of “car jockeying” is about to begin, I grab a beverage and a lawn chair and venture out, not to criticize or make fun, not to ridicule or give myself a sense of superiority. Rather I go out to admire a family dynamic that is revealed—albeit not without some comedy—to be working in spite of obvious dysfunctions and mishaps. I think that most could take a lesson from that…
Reynolds includes a preface to the novel that guides the potentially insensitive reader, who otherwise might not understand the take-away message of this loosely organized and thought-provoking narrative. I suspect that Reynolds may have had trouble finding an editor capable of appreciating the work. Because throughout most of novel, the narrator does not provide commentary, the author must have felt it necessary include it in the preface, which is more or less an elaboration of the commentary given in and quoted above in “The Neighbors,” which works to head off any accusations that the author is condescending.
I didn’t look at the preface until after reading the novel to the end. I recommend taking this approach. Let the collection do its work on you without authorial direction and then read the preface to have your sense of the general intention confirmed. The preface would have made a better epilogue for the good reader will find in it a sense of satisfaction of having guess the message correctly.
Vox Populi is a wonderfully complex and sensitive novel that is more about development and evolution of the reader (vicariously through the narrator) than it is about any one of the novel’s characters. The meta-story of the novel is the successful communication of compassion that redeems all the failures described within.
–V. N. Alexander, author of Locus Amœnus, forthcoming 2015