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July 15, 2008

Loyalty, wealth and honor in flyover country

Commonwealth 

(By Joey Goebel. MacAdam/Cage; 

350 pp., $24.)


Is this an “East of Eden” for our times? You’ve got brotherly brinkmanship, the secrets of mothers, ambitious fathers — and war and rural society are seen as two plump opportunities for exploitation. But Joey Goebel is equipped to go far beyond just the characters in a distinctly memorable family. You might not ever be able to get the Mapothers out of your head, what with the author’s ear for dialogue across generational and cultural boundaries, but he wants the story to convey a larger scene of loyalties and wealth, twisted in the modern politics of middle America’s Red States. 

Following “The Anomalies” and “Torture the Artist,” this is the third novel for the Henderson, Ky., native, former News4U editor and Spalding alum. Once again Goebel has nonconformists who are relatively reasonable souls encountering the soulless officers of corrupted ideas, all in front of a wonderfully rendered everyday/everyman background. In this case, the husks of Wal-Marts — both humming and forsaken — are scenes for important encounters. However, absurdities don’t pile up as fast this time around. By lowering the wattage just a little on his imaginative amp, Goebel breezily hooks into a storyline that’s only a breathtakingly short distance from real congressional election campaigns all across this great land.  

The heart of the novel is “Blue Gene” Mapother, 27-year-old scion of a tobacco empire, whose adolescent love life, health and education have made him an eccentric anachronism. He sports a mullet, waits for the next smoke break at his flea-market booth and wonders whether it would take too much effort to attend a monster truck rally. This young man, living in his personal, perpetual September 10th, is about to be asked to join his estranged family in pursuit of their long-simmering dream to get his older brother into the House of Representatives … and beyond.  

The Mapothers — and others, including a shack-bound lady with an oxygen tank and an overeducated substitute teacher who writes the scripts for wrestling matches — are almost uniformly excellent creations. The exception is the candidate’s brother himself, whose shallowness is frequently overdrawn (but even this character has a full complement of dimensions — they’re just out of proportion). The old-guard capitalist father is a particularly rich blend, demanding and earning measured sympathy even as the plot reveals more loathsomeness in his past and present.

Flashbacks are all over the place, but this novel benefits from its finite time frame of Independence Day to Labor Day. That’s just the right amount of time for a family under campaign pressures to go through splintering and realignments that shake its core and reverberate throughout the district. One of the novel’s triumphs lies in how decisions of the past render each family member as a distinct figure — even as they mire in self-contradictions and conspire to hold onto convenient fabricated revisions of their shared history. 

The bravura development of this dysfunctional family survives despite some recurring annoyances among the pages. Redundancies stack up (e.g., how many times do we have to hear exchanges of “You haven’t spoken to me.” “Well, you haven’t spoken to me either”?). And when characters are changing and developing at a relaxed, natural pace, the periodic peeling away of sharp revelations feels like programmed author manipulation. But one weakness is especially curious, even ironic: Though a theme of this novel is the defeat of rationality by shortcutting to inflammatory jingo, some scenes are over-narrated or glossed in clichéd shorthand. Sentences such as, “It looked as if he had forced John into the apology that would end this” aren’t just unnecessary — they seem to come from Henry Mapother, who would not trust a reader to figure things out. And it isn’t Henry’s voice describing attendees at a campaign rally as “a six-pack of long-bearded, God-fearing Vietnam vets.” 

[img_assist|nid=7265|title=“Commonwealth” by Joey Goebel. MacAdam/Cage; 350 pp., $24.|desc=|link=|align=left|width=132|height=200]

“Commonwealth” could have easily lost its narrative strengths in pursuit of more grins, which Goebel wisely leaves on the table. The theme of redistributing wealth (the title ain’t there just to take up space) could’ve gone off too baldly into proselytizing. Instead, the humor is leavened with warmth and subtlety — it’s a sly path that leads a candidate’s credo to match with that of Wal-Mart. Questions often blossom without being stamped down in explanation: a power-behind-the-throne entity called Wormland stays tantalizingly out of focus; one character’s apparent final turn toward morality is left deliciously unconfirmed. Goebel had me engaged, guessing and smirking with every argument of this outlandish family, for whom politics takes its place beside religion as just another means for the covetous to cover their trail — and in whose hands we all might end up.