David James Poissant’s literary debut signaled the arrival of a notable new voice in 2014. His short story collection, “The Heaven of Animals,” was named one of the best books of the year by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, one of the best short story collections of the year by Amazon and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times book prize.
Six years later, his debut novel, “Lake Life,” establishes Poissant as one of the South’s best new writers working today. It is a dazzling work that is so confidently crafted, so keenly perceptive and so deeply compassionate, it’s hard to believe it was written by someone this early in his career.
The premise is elegant in its simplicity. The Starling family — composed of a retirement-age couple, their two adult sons and their significant others — gathers at their lake house in the North Carolina mountains one last time before it’s sold. The novel spans a weekend and begins when a child unknown to the Starlings drowns before their eyes in their cove.
Poissant assembles an intriguing group of adults. Lisa and Richard Starling are academics; he’s a mathematics professor and she’s a researcher who studies birds. Son Michael is the lone Republican and an alcoholic married to Diane, an elementary school art teacher. Son Thad is a poet in theory, although he doesn’t write or publish much. He’s supported by his boyfriend Jake, a famous young artist in New York City with a compulsive sex drive.
Thad is bipolar, but thanks to a combination of prescription drugs, marijuana and a therapist named Steve, he’s able to sustain his emotional equilibrium at a low-grade depression that is mostly manageable. He’s not alone. Everyone in the Starling family is depressed, a fact reflected by the rundown state of their vacation home, a double-wide trailer that’s been converted into a house. “(T)he porch sags. The siding is gray and mildew-stained. The roof is missing shingles, and what shingles remain hang furred with moss. And is it Lisa’s imagination, or does the whole house kind of lean a little?”
Everyone in the Starling clan harbors a secret. Richard’s secret is he had a brief affair. Lisa’s secret is that she knows about it. Together, they’re keeping a different secret from their sons. Michael is hiding his dependency on alcohol, and Thad is hiding the cracks in his relationship with Jake. Jake and Diane have secrets, too. Altogether they make a volatile cocktail of anger and fear just waiting to combust. The death of a little boy, who leaves a pair of water wings bobbing on the lake’s surface, provides the spark.
One of the things that makes “Lake Life” so captivating is Poissant’s ability to take this knotty situation and, in surprising and organic ways, make profound observations about some of life’s bigger questions. Everything from politics and religion to the meaning of art and the secret to happiness is explored through the Starling family’s fractured prism.
For instance, Jake escapes the lake house one afternoon to visit his former boyfriend Marco, also an artist, who lives in nearby Asheville. Already disillusioned with Marco for leaving New York and taking up with a woman, Jake scoffs at the blatant commercial appeal of Marco’s bird paintings.
“What’s so wrong with picking a city you love, settling down, and making work that sells?” Marco asks Jake.
Jake returns to the lake to find Diane has taken his art supplies down to the dock and is attempting to paint the sunset. When Jake picks up a brush and casually captures the view in a few strokes, Diane realizes she could never be the artist he is. But she also recognizes that “Art’s not her life. Life is her life … Given the choice between people and paint, she’ll choose people every time. She’s not convinced Jake would.”
Ultimately, “Lake Life” is about the redemptive power of love. Not romantic love. These couples are way past that. It’s about the dig-down-deep kind of love that sees people though all the muck life throws at them — the ugly behavior, the aging bodies, the failed efforts, the losses.
It’s also about the love of a parent for an adult child. Richard and Lisa are brilliant and well regarded in their fields. “Google either name, a thousand hits come up.” Michael and Thad are overgrown adolescents who have, so far, failed to launch. As Richard observes, “He tries not … to treat his sons’ partners with more respect than he treats his sons, but it’s hard not to, the way his sons behave at times, the questionable choices they make. He loves them, fully, unconditionally. But respect comes harder than love.”
During a rare moment of clarity, Michael recognizes that his mother’s love for him dwarfs his love for her, and that is the natural order of things. “To have a child is to ruin yourself, forever, in the name of love.”
While all these dramas play out, a child’s body rests on the bottom of the lake waiting to surface.
At one point, Lisa makes the observation that starlings are pesky birds, invasive to North America and destructive to the environment, but there’s no denying the beauty of their murmurations as they sweep through the sky in kaleidoscopic formations. They are much like the Starlings in “Lake Life”: good and bad and here to stay.
By David James Poissant
Simon and Schuster
304 pages, $25
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