Deb Olin Unferth
McSweeney’s ($22)

by Stephanie Hlywak

At the heart of Deb Olin Unferth’s astonishing, unsettling first novel is the idea and intention of vacation: what do we escape from? Where do we go? And at what point do we transition from being happy that we’re away to wanting to return back home? “A vacation,” Unferth writes, “is simply, you know, to vacate.” The characters who inhabit her sparse and melancholic landscape have indeed vacated, but they are not vacant: cast in a poignant, deceptively minimalist style, they are fully formed emotional beings craving reassurance they are not alone in the world. Their journeys—a man seeking the object of his wife’s fantasies, a daughter searching for the father she never knew existed, a refugee returning home to family, a dolphin “un-trainer” releasing dolphins back into the ocean—shape their characters.

Beautifully structured, with paragraphs like alternating verses in a folk song duet and a multi-perspective narrative—nine voices in all, including that of a “Sexy woman in bikini”—Vacation centers around Myers, a man with a misshapen head, who, suspecting his wife has strayed, begins stalking her, only to discover she is following another man, Gray, a stranger to her but an old acquaintance of Meyers’s from college. Meyers follows Gray from New York City to Syracuse to Nicaragua, orbiting around him without ever making contact, seeking without ever finding. Gray, meanwhile, suffering from a massive brain tumor that impairs his judgment, is in Panama, unable to find his way home. This wonderful synchronicity—two men with head problems and domestic trouble—is emblematic of the deft reciprocity that unites these characters, who otherwise move through Unferth’s spectral landscape alone and disembodied.

In a 2007 interview, Unferth stated that she had to write this novel or she would die. This imperative to act—even in ways that are not necessarily rational, as if propelled by a force greater than oneself—is reflected in the characters that populate Vacation: they, too, have to keep moving forward, even if in the end it hastens, as opposed to guards them from, their own demise.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009