Trying To Fix A 'Hole' By Digging Deeper

The Hole We're In
The Hole We're In
By Gabrielle Zevin
Paperback, 288 pages
Grove Press
List price: $14

Read An Excerpt

Pick an adjective to describe the Pomeroys. Doomed, perhaps? Dysfunctional doesn't cover it.

The family at the center of Gabrielle Zevin's novel The Hole We're In, the Pomeroys are in money trouble, and every action only makes things worse. Roger, the patriarch, is a preacher who decides, when his youngest daughter is still very small, to go back to graduate school, leaving his wife, George, to support the family. She does this by working low-wage jobs — and by taking out a credit card in the name of her son, Vinnie.

Zevin writes:

You spend your whole life trying to get out of holes. The hole you're born into because of who your parents are. The hole you dig yourself trying to get out of that first hole. The hole your children are born into is the saddest hole of all.

Their parents give them a good head start, but the Pomeroy children come to The Hole We're In equipped with shovels of their own. Patsy, the youngest, perhaps digs farthest.

"I think she's born into a hole that comes from the fact that her parents don't have much money," Zevin says. "You can sort of purchase your way out of situations if you have money to do that. And so the biggest hole I think she comes across is when she tries to go to college, finds that she cannot get a scholarship because of a series of events that happen in the book, and ends up in the military."

Rather than live up to her name, Patsy finds herself edging into a role as the family's black sheep.

"I think she's put in a situation where she has to be the renegade," Zevin says. "I don't think she was born to be an iconoclast or anything. It just was her lot in life to be such."

And though Patsy digs plenty of her own holes, the author can't help but sympathize with the character.

"I do think she's more a victim of circumstance. It is very difficult to be a woman serving in the armed forces, and I think she comes across issues with that that make it very difficult for her to even conceive of her life as it goes on," Zevin says. "She marries very young; I'm not sure if that's a hole she digs to try to escape her family. She has a child very young. And she has to take jobs and think about things because of that, so it really is a never-ending hole that keeps getting bigger."

Gabrielle Zevin i i

Gabrielle Zevin is also the author of the young adult novel Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac and the screenplay for the film Conversations with Other Women, as well as two other novels. She lives in New York City. Aaron Eckhart hide caption

itoggle caption Aaron Eckhart
Gabrielle Zevin

Gabrielle Zevin is also the author of the young adult novel Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac and the screenplay for the film Conversations with Other Women, as well as two other novels. She lives in New York City.

Aaron Eckhart

Though it's easy to judge the actions that Zevin's characters take, her novel reveals more and more information about who they are, and how they have been forced into financial corners that are increasingly difficult to escape. Zevin's view of life in a family suggests a Rashomon-style tale, with multiple perspectives on a shared experience, each of which illuminate an individual character's (possibly faulty) conviction that their actions are defensible.

Zevin says that if that light shines more harshly on George and Roger, the Pomeroy parents shoulder an imposing burden, and one that makes their attempts to dig out of their financial hole harder to judge at face value.

"I hope you feel sympathy for them," Zevin says. "I don't really expect people to feel empathy for them because they do some things that are fairly terrible. But I think all parents do the best they can with what they have."

Zevin says that though she's read reviews of her book that describe George as a monster, she sees the struggling mother as a woman "trying to do the best under extremely difficult circumstances."

Sometimes her best involves actions that — on the surface — seem reprehensible. She ignores bills and opens credit cards in her children's names, ruining their credit scores.

Is George, a woman who seems to think she's "trying her best," just delusional?

"She seems to me slightly more self aware than her husband, because he definitely thinks he did his best," Zevin says. "And she knows that she has certainly failed at least 2 of her 3 children, probably, in larger and small ways."

The Pomeroys don't just shovel. They also spend. Temptation is evil-twinned with the desperation the Pomeroys feel at the depth of their financial woes. Each character is drawn to something that puts recovery from ruin a little farther out of reach, and Adam and Eve, temptation's original victims, are revealed as the book's patron saints.

According to Zevin, "every story is, in some respect a creation story." But she says that the evocation of that original hard-luck pair wasn't always part of her plan.

"The things that tempt us aren't always so obvious as, like, a snake," she says. "I think that Roger — at the beginning of the book, he wants to go back to school. He wants something for himself. He feels like he's gotten his kids to this point. So his snake is such a small snake, really. It's such a modest snake. But unfortunately, it's a snake he can't afford."

As the problems of the Pomeroys snowball from financial to psychological, they only become more difficult to solve.

"I think that it's funny how much a financial hole creates all of these other holes," Zevin says. "I think debt really is such an emotional thing for people."

Excerpt: 'The Hole We're In'

The Hole We're In
The Hole We're In
By Gabrielle Zevin
Paperback, 288 pages
Grove Press
List price: $14

Chapter 1

A June and Six Septembers midway through his son's graduation from college, somewhere between the Ns and the Os, Roger Pomeroy decided that he owed it to himself to go back to school. He was forty-two years old, though people told him at least once a week that he looked younger. Last Christmas, a salesgirl had mistaken his then nineteen-year-old daughter for his wife. Last week, a different salesgirl had mistaken his fortyone- year-old wife for his mother. He knew it wasn't flattery, because in both instances the salesgirls had already made their sales: respectively, a flannel nightgown (wife's Christmas) and a leather fanny pack (son's graduation). And, at work — Roger was an assistant principal at the same Christian high school that his two older children had attended — all the girls flirted with him no matter how much he discouraged the practice.

His wife, George (nee Georgia), nudged him. "You're supposed to be standing." Roger looked at the crowd, then past it to the dais. A flag was being raised. Everyone was standing, so Roger stood.

The more he thought about it, the more it made sense to do it now. Roger had completed a master's in education while working full-time, but if he wanted to get really serious (that is to say, a PhD) he would have to take leave. He had three children: Vincent, the son who was graduating; Helen, who would be a college junior the following year; and Patricia, age ten, the baby of the family though hardly a baby anymore. In any case, the kids were mostly grown, which meant two fewer mouths to feed. And if George had to work a couple of extra hours — here, he paused to smile at his wife. The smile was meant to acknowledge the official magnitude of the occasion, A Son's Graduation from College, but George immediately detected the ulterior in it. She grinned back.

Roger lowered his thoughts to a whisper. If George had to work a couple of extra hours, it would ultimately be for the best. With a PhD, Roger would earn more money, which meant the wife could retire altogether. Based on the time it had taken him to complete his master's, Roger estimated three years for a doctorate. He had been a family man for twenty-two years, over half his life. He had never cheated at anything, marriage included. He was an honorary pastor at their church and considered himself to be a better-than-average Christian. He had made sacrifices for others and now, he reckoned, sacrifices should be made for him. George squeezed her husband's hand. "Earth to Roger," she whispered. "Your son's next."

They called Vinnie's name, and Roger applauded. He had missed his own graduation from college because George had gone into labor with the boy. It seemed fitting and good that he had come to this decision on this day. Caps flew through the air and Roger's eyes filled with tears. The youngest, Patsy, was standing on the other side of him. He lifted her over his shoulders so that she could better see the show.

"Daddy," Patsy said. She placed her doll hands on his cheeks. "Are you crying because you're still mad at Vinnie?"

"No, I'm just happy, baby."

Fifteen months later, Roger moved his family from Tennessee to Texas and began the PhD program at Teacher's College, Texas University. He loved being full-time and working forms of the word matriculate into casual conversation. He was a sucker for anything (mugs, mouse pads, tube socks) with the Fighting Yellow Devils logo, despite the fact that these items were sold at a premium. If he could have afforded and gotten his wife to agree to it, he would have lived in student housing.

No doubt about it, the first year was difficult financially. The move alone had drained a good portion of their savings. But, by the second year, Roger had a decent teaching stipend amounting to fifteen thousand dollars per annum — less than a third of what he had taken in as an assistant principal, but combined with low-interest student loans, high-interest credit cards, a cashed-in retirement plan, and George's job, not bad. And besides, he wouldn't be a student forever. Just three years. Or four. Certainly no more than four.

After a summer of soul searching, Roger settled on a topic for his dissertation September of his fifth year. He would study the differences between kids who had attended schools with a religious component and kids who hadn't. The topic was near to his heart: Patsy, now nearly sixteen, was going to a public school because no acceptable religious one had been found within a thirty-mile radius of Texas U. Roger's standards for such an institution were very high indeed.

For the record, it was not an extraordinarily slow pace at which to complete a PhD. It was on the fast side of average, though it had obviously exceeded Roger's initial estimates.

George asked him if he might consider going back to work fulltime while writing the dissertation. Roger declined. He had a lot of research to do, and he believed the whole enterprise would go more quickly if he could just focus. One other thing: upon reading his proposal, his adviser, the distinguished professor Carolyn Murray, had commented, "There just might be a book in this, Rog." He was embarrassed by how many times he'd repeated these words to himself.

Despite the comfort he took in them, Roger chose not to share them with his wife. Instead, he imagined the following scene:

Roger, who has not yet turned fifty but regardless looks much younger,
has taken Georgia to the nicest restaurant in town.
"Can we afford this?" George asks after a cursory look at the menu.
Roger nods and encourages the woman to order whatever she wants.
"Well, if you're certain . . ."
"I am, George. I am."
After dessert is served, Roger casually reaches under the table and pulls
a published book out from under it.
"What's this?" she asks.
"It's a book," he says. [Alternatively, he says, "It's all our dreams come
true," though this line effectually ends the scene, and Roger prefers to draw
it out.]
George looks at the book. "But, it has your name on the cover."
"That's because it's my book, George. It's our book, and it's going to
make us very, very rich."
"Why, Roger," she says, "I didn't even know you were writing a book!"
"I wanted to keep it a secret until I was sure," he says, turning back the
cover with a jaunty flick of the wrist.

Reprinted from the book The Hole We're In by Gabrielle Zevin. Copyright 2010 by Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic.

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