AT LAST WEEKEND'S poetry festival,one work by citing the theory (or in her own words, "fact") that even the slightest alteration in our surroundings changes the entire universe--in her example, the stick moved from one side of the path to the other, which for all we know will be the cause of a great storm in China.
It opens a world of possibility for those who despair that storytelling--poetry, fiction or otherwise--has degenerated into endless variations on a theme. And it is just this world that author and UA prof Elizabeth Evans embraces with her compelling third novel, Carter Clay.
The story begins with a wrong turn by one Joe Alitz. From that single, utterly mundane instant, a cavalcade of catastrophe ensues in the lives of his wife, daughter, mother-in-law, and a host of strangers (ranging from Floridian retirees and homeless Vietnam vets to the provincial residents of a mill town in the Pacific Northwest). None the least of those transformed by experience is the mysterious Carter Clay.
"In simple terms, Carter Clay is the character who 'makes the mess' that is central to the novel, but he is not a monster," Evans says. "He is an uneducated man with a very sad past who would--rather understandably--prefer not to examine his life."
Evans (The Blue Hour, Locomotion) has established herself as a master of detail, and her writing is rife with carefully crafted sentences that are a pleasure to read. She excels at defining her characters, and her long, dark and twisted journey provides settings as varied as the confused and wounded passengers who inhabit them. Her sense of place is impeccable: a country road under "a white ache of sky," the manicured world of Palm Gate Village retirement community, the littered cargo hold of a speeding van, a back alley, an Arizona home the local reader can't help but impose on the Catalina Foothills, and the depressing and claustrophobic woods of rural Washington.
Carter Clay is ambitious and original, if not entirely consistent. For one, the philosophizing narrator so effective in the prologue is an unwelcome imposition by the book's end. It seems that having spun such an interesting web, Evans has difficulty getting out of it with equal grace. The final chapters, though tense, feel anticlimactic; and her epilogue reads like the final exposition of a Twilight Zone episode. But if one is mildly disappointed at the telling of the story, it's only because the writing of it is so well done.
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