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'The Sentimentalists': Submerged Emotions Surface

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The Sentimentalists
The Sentimentalists: A Novel
By Johanna Skibsrud
Hardcover, 208 pages
W.W. Norton & Co.
List price: $23.95

Read An Excerpt

This is the kind of novel that the traditional publishing industry isn't supposed to have room for any longer: a slim debut novel graced by inventive language and a haunting atmosphere. In other words, a novel that, if it's lucky, can be estimated to attract maybe 15 readers outside of the author's family. But Johanna Skibsrud's novel, The Sentimentalists, has already had more than its share of first-time work of fiction luck. In addition to getting picked up by Norton, it's been blurbed by the serious likes of Claire Messud, and has won what's billed as Canada's most prestigious literary award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize. (Who knew?)

I can see why The Sentimentalists has broken out from the anonymous MFA novel pack. For all the ways that The Sentimentalists feels a bit belabored — its imagery too insistent with meaning — the melancholy mood and restrained language of the story settles deep into a reader's consciousness. At one point, the primary narrator of the novel sadly observes that "the possibilities of a life, it seemed, were small." That line is already firmly wedged into the wrinkle of my brain filled with quotes from Emily Dickinson and Dorothy Parker comebacks.

The situation of The Sentimentalists is this: A sagging alcoholic Vietnam vet named Napoleon Haskell is moved by his two adult daughters from the trailer he's been living in in Fargo, N.D., to a house on the shores of a lake in Ontario. The house is owned by a family friend named Henry, who is the father of Napoleon's Marine Corps buddy, killed in the war. This is no swanky vacation lodge, however. Henry's house is referred to as "the government house" because it was paid for by the government after his original farmhouse and surrounding fields were flooded by an engineering project. The lake that Henry, Napoleon, and Napoleon's daughters like to boat on is a manmade watery shroud for the town of Casablanca, Ontario, that was deliberately drowned by fiat.

The Sentimentalists takes its cue from the image of that creepy lake: It's a novel that is obsessed with feelings and events long submerged and only now half discerned. There's the "pearl-sized lump" that is discovered, just in time, on Napoleon's elder daughter's ovary. Then, there are the hidden emotional revelations. Our unnamed narrator, Napoleon's younger daughter, eventually confesses that she has the leisure for an extended stay with her dying father because her fiance back in Brooklyn has cheated on her. It was not a grand passion, which, paradoxically, makes the split even sadder. And after the breakup, she diagnoses the state of things:

"I had thought ... having learned the lesson from my [divorced] mother, that it was foolish to ask for too much out of life. ... But what pain, I thought now, could be greater than to realize that even the practical reality for which you had assumed to settle upon, did not hold — that even that was illusory? Would it not be better then, to set your sights on some more fantastic and rare dream from which even in failing you might take some comfort in having once aspired?"

Johanna Skibsrud wrote The Sentimentalists for her thesis at Concordia University. She lives in Montreal. i

Johanna Skibsrud wrote The Sentimentalists for her thesis at Concordia University. She lives in Montreal. W.W. Norton & Co. hide caption

toggle caption W.W. Norton & Co.
Johanna Skibsrud wrote The Sentimentalists for her thesis at Concordia University. She lives in Montreal.

Johanna Skibsrud wrote The Sentimentalists for her thesis at Concordia University. She lives in Montreal.

W.W. Norton & Co.

As you can see, the language of The Sentimentalists is thoughtful, slightly ornate — which, to me, is one of the pleasures of this novel. Napoleon is one of those spottily educated, working-class guys who likes to declaim from what his daughter characterizes as a "secret store of poetry and song lyrics, and movie quotations." Those random poetic lines — along with a steady infusion of beer — help keep Napoleon's personal nightmares of history at bay, though the last third of The Sentimentalists is an extended flashback to Vietnam. This ending section is much more direct — even callous — than the preceding chapters. Again, the lake waters that blanket the sharp fences and steeples of the drowned town of Casablanca are invoked: The oblique opening of The Sentimentalists doesn't prepare a reader for what lies beneath.

The Sentimentalists, as I've said, is a little heavy-handed, but if you're willing to pay that price of admission, it distinctly summons up a world out of time — one where a father and daughter get to sit over crossword puzzles and cans of beer and stale sandwiches as they contemplate the mysteries that they are to each other. For the rare dad, it could be a good Father's Day gift; though I think it's a better fit for all you daughter-readers out there who are still trying to figure the Old Man out.

Excerpt: 'The Sentimentalists'

The Sentimentalists
The Sentimentalists: A Novel
By Johanna Skibsrud
Hardcover, 208 pages
W.W. Norton & Co.
List price: $23.95

The house my father left behind in Fargo, North Dakota, was never really a house at all. Always, instead, it was an idea of itself. A carpenter's house. A work in progress. So that even after we moved him north to Casablanca, and his Fargo home was dragged away – the lot sold to a family from Billings, Montana — my father was always saddened and surprised if the place was remembered irreverently, as if it had been a separate and incidental thing; distinct from the rest of our lives. In this way, he remained, until the end, a house carpenter. If only in the way that he looked at things. As if all objects existed in blueprint; in different stages of design or repair.

The Fargo place had been acquired by my father in the first year of his sobriety, and by that time it had already been pieced together from two and a half aluminum trailers and deposited in a lot — No. 16 — at the edge of a West Fargo mobile-home park. To him, and therefore to us, it was always his "palace" nevertheless, and he looked on the additions and renovations that he made to the place over the years of his residency there with particular pride.

The park itself was crowned by a large blue and white water tower and the surrounding landscape of West Fargo was so flat that my father could follow the tower, from the other side of town, all the way home. He could drive straight across the city on the carefully sectioned right angles of highway, and it looked, as he approached the park, as if the neat rows of long, low houses were, for the tower, a structural necessity. It also appeared that the park was in the tower's full shade. But, as he approached – as he passed the last four-way intersection and his own house came into view – the tower diminished, the houses lengthened, small front gardens appeared, and there was suddenly space for two or three cars in every drive. By the time he pulled into his own driveway, the water tower, although still large, was a peripheral structure six or seven blocks away.

The additions to the house had been made awkwardly before my father arrived, so that, from the side, the building appeared to be attached by several loose joints. Inside, the linked sections were marked by a step, and because the corridor was so narrow and long those steps were as much of a surprise to come across as a curve would be on a prairie-town street.

At the end of the corridor was the room my father referred to as the "second library" — the "first" having reached its limit years before. My father was a great reader and a great rememberer of things, though he never remembered anything in the right order, or entirely, and always had just little bits of all the books and poems he'd ever read floating around in his mind. The second library was the most lived-in room of the house and, besides the shelves of books that gave it its name, it stored the computer, the TV, the exercise bike, and the photographs, in piles.

The photographs had been mostly those sent, over the years, by my mother and grandmother, and I knew them all well because they were the same ones kept in albums at my mother's house. They were of my sister Helen and me: posed for yearly school portraits, or else with our feet up on soccer balls.

Our early years were documented well in my father's house. There were shots of backyard camping, of our first dog, a golden lab named Roger, as well as stacks and stacks of Christmas concert photos, in which it is nearly impossible to identify a single subject.

A gap of four years in the progression of the photographs left most of our adolescence unaccounted for, so that, in going through the piles on my first visit to my father's house, at the age of twenty-two, I was surprised to find us – toward the end of the collection – suddenly grown. The documentation resumed itself only in sheets of uncut wallet-sized graduation photographs, and then in the newer, less dusty images of my niece, Sophia, which Helen had sent from Tennessee.

The second library was the designated smoking room when I visited. My father retired there after meals, and at half-hour intervals throughout the day. I avoided the room and tried to keep the rest of the house aired out as best I could. Sometimes, though, I would get it into my head that, like my father, I couldn't breathe – and then I would run back and forth along the corridor and swing the front and back doors quickly in and out.

In my father's last winter in Fargo, too out of breath to continue repairs on the palace, he became interested in the stock market. He upgraded his computer and after that spent nearly all of his time in the second library, rarely venturing into the long corridor that led to the rest of the many-roomed house.

He had set up the computer on a low desk next to the television, so that it was possible for him to watch them both at once, and he kept up on the progress of his few shares throughout the day, even watching them while he logged his obligatory mile on the exercise bike, which he had moved in front of the screen. When the markets closed in the evenings and on holidays he missed them and paced the room, he said, "like a bear."

The computer was part of a package deal that he paid for so slowly that the interest soon turned out to be double the cost. "I'm even getting a burner thrown in," my father told me over the phone in January, "and a fax machine."

"Doesn't all this depress you a little?" my sister Helen said a month later when my father's operations were in full swing.

"Dad," I said, "what in the hell are you going to fax?"

He didn't hear.

"I might as well," he told me. "At this price I can't afford not to."

By the third week of my father's career he had lost a total of $150 which he pointed out to us was pretty decent for a newbie.

"This is much safer than blackjack," he told me when he tallied the results and let me know.

"This might be the wrong economic moment, Dad," I said, "to get into this sort of thing."

"You may be right," my father admitted, "you may be right."

But my next communication from him was an e-mail he sent to both Helen and me, and it looked as though he had no intention of pulling out. It read, "Keep your fingers crossed and we'll be retiring to the original Me-hee-ko in very short order." Another message followed this one closely. "I've given up on the miners, but – doing a little research, and, third time being the charm, our next venture's going to put us in the running, my sweethearts. Hope you're feeling as lucky as I am."

Helen wasn't feeling lucky at all. "We've got to get him out of there," she said. "Henry will never put up with this shit."

Henry's place, tucked into the tiny town of Casablanca, Ontario – just twenty miles from the border of New York – was the site of all our childhood summers, and what all of us, including my father, secretly thought of as home. Still, when Helen first suggested that my father move there permanently to be looked after by Susan, Henry's part-time nurse for as long as we had known him, my father clung resolutely to the independent refuge of his palace, which he returned to every year, like a bird. But that next spring, after the stock-market winter, we moved my father, despite his protests, permanently to Casablanca. The palace was sold, according to Helen's direction, shortly before his departure, and it was arranged that my father's medical files be transferred to the North Country Veterans Clinic in Massena, New York, from where Susan – now fully employed – could drive his medication across the border, without delay.

It's a tall, upright building, Henry's house. Constructed on government money to replace the old family home – which was one of twelve original houses lost when the dam came through in 1959. Even now, Casablanca is a small town, but before the dam it was not even, properly, a town at all. It was only referred to by its intersecting county roads, and because of this was never officially recorded as being "lost." It wasn't until the dam came through that people started calling the place Casablanca. Like in the Bogart film, they had begun to "wait for their release" from a town that – never having fully existed – had already begun to disappear. But then, even after the relocation was complete, the name stuck – coming to refer to the new community of
government-built houses that got strung along the lake road.

Although many of the original homes were, like Henry's, submerged, and others were burned to the ground, some had been simply lifted from their foundations and carried the short distance into the new town. Even the year before, with the construction of the St. Lawrence seaway, it was anticipated that the older houses could be so cleanly removed that residents were encouraged to leave everything in place inside them. For the most part, this advice went unheeded. People packed their belongings into boxes anyway, placing them in relative safety, in the corners of the rooms. But there were those who, curious to test the claim, left candlesticks on narrow ledges in the halls, books balanced upright on countertops, chipped teacups on high kitchen shelves.

One resident who left two mayonnaise jars balanced one on top of the other in the middle of her living-room floor had found them – upon re-entering her house fifty-two hours later and at a distance of several miles – upright still, as though they themselves were the axis upon which everything else had turned, seemingly less bewildered by their journey than she herself had been.

Henry's old place still lies buried some miles from his front door at the end of the disappearing road, which begins on one side of a small island and empties out into the water again on the other.

The dock at the end of the government house drive points like a long finger in the same direction; at the end of the dock, Henry's old boat is tied.

The remains of the rest of the original town (if that is what it can be properly called) can sometimes still be seen below the lake road, which runs from the town limit to an archipelago of islands in the middle of the large created lake: sections of fence posts, a crumpled church steeple, and pieces of the old foundations, which are marked at the water's extremity by long poles that stick out at odd angles around the edge of the lake — a warning for the boats that go racing by sometimes with their motors down, too fast.

Excerpted from The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud. Copyright 2011 by Johanna Skibsrud. Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co.

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