Shelter in Place by Alexander Maksik, review by Bruce Jacobs
Sometimes a novel's first sentence is so memorable that it comes to stand for the story itself--whether Melville's "Call me Ishmael" or Joyce's "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed." Such is the startling opening line of Alexander Maksik's third novel, Shelter in Place (after A Marker to Measure Drift): "In the summer of 1991 my mother beat a man to death with a twenty-two ounce Estwing framing hammer and I fell in love with Tess Wolff." Maksik's narrator, Joe March, is a brooding, bar-hopping, lackluster student at Santa Monica Community College. His self-disciplined, blue-collar father calls him home to Seattle after his mother's fatal bludgeoning of a stranger, whom she saw beating his wife in a strip mall parking lot, for which she receives a life sentence.
On the drive north, he stops for a few days at a cheap motel in Cannon Beach, Ore., where he meets the wild, fearless bartender Tess and falls ass over teakettle in love. But Joe is in the early grip of a bipolar disorder, which in its down mode he characterizes as a bird trapped in his chest with "talons digging in" before it changes to "tar that moves through me and pins me down and holds me there." When he is manically up, he notes that "your skin is humming and your heart is deadly... there is nothing but the present world." In this phase he sees Tess as an antidote, "no tar in her, no bird, and nothing would stop her."
The lovers continue north to White Pine, the small prison town outside Seattle, where they visit Joe's mom, who instills in Tess a feminist righteousness. Joe and Tess happily work together tending bar at a local joint, between trips to the city to hear the Seattle sound--especially Nirvana, because "Cobain was our crown prince, our John Lennon, and he was everywhere." Shelter in Place is both a love story and the sensitive portrayal of Joe's reconciliation with his calm and steady father, who sells their Seattle house, rents a little place in White Pine where he makes furniture, joins a Quaker meeting house, and lives out his days visiting his wife. Underneath it all, however, is Maksik's portrait of Joe, his constant fear of his disorder's disabling side and his mistrust of its euphoric side: "I go along and then there is horror. I go along and then there is wonder." He hopes for "quiet and peace above all" and "enough goodness to smooth over the holes in my chest. Drywall over a bad frame." Maksik's Joe March is a man for today as much as Ishmael and Stephen were for Melville's and Joyce's days.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.