“Subtraction” by Mary Robison

subtrThis is a dialog-heavy novel based on a group of down and out characters who have drifted from the academic Northeast and find themselves miserable in Houston. It was published in 1991. Author Mary Robison has taught English at several universities, including the University of Houston. Her artistic kinship with Barthelme is evident in this book: concise style, irreverent cast, modern pathos storyline, and liberal use of imagery.  Her command of words ascends into realms of poetry. Her images describing rough and tumble Houston (especially to those of us who have lived there) are extraordinary. In the latter part of the book, the snowstorm descriptions in coastal MA are also vivid.  We’re right there with the narrator.

The novel’s most interesting characters are the narrator Paige (the intelligent artist whose progress in life is seized by loyalty to the wayward Raf) and her erstwhile friend Pru (the stripper who uses her perfect body as a machine to survive). None of the characters are admirable. Paige’s husband Raf and  his pal Raymond, both of whom dominate the pages, are almost indistinguishable.Most of the cast are well-educated derelicts with a fixation about getting drunk and getting laid.  Paige’s mom Dottie is a senior citizen stoner. Paige puts up with Raf because of his intense vitality. He’s a Neal Cassady type who draws people in and is moral after all, despite his profligate ways.

We are given a heaping of overheated foul Houston air, low rent squalor, sterile hotels, infidelity, warm beer, a kept woman’s fancy loft, male chauvinism, and Texas-Southern bible-beating right-wing despicableness.

Eventually things cool off as the cast moves back to the coastal Northeast. We go from the indifferent totalitarian to the caring communal.

The effect is like reading Beckett, as suggested in the book:  the vivid imagery might stick around and carry into your dreams at night.

FWIW, I keep thinking…this book struck me as a piece of art that’s ahead of its time. I recommend reading it.

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