26 October 2005

The Wasp Eater, by William Lychack

The Wasp Eater, by William Lychack. Houghton Mifflin 2004.

Principal Characters:

Daniel – son

Robert “Bob” Cussler -- Dad

Anna – Mom

Joelyn – cousin

Divorce ravages the “traditional family” in our culture today. Statistics are available to bear this out.

Once the stuff of scandal and whispers-behind-hands divorce is now commonplace. We are so used to being surrounded by broken families and broken promises that we forget that these phenomena have their consequences.

“She became a widow well before his father died.” Thus begins The Wasp Eater, by William Lychack. This little novel (164 pages in a 5” x 8” format) tells the story of a broken marriage in the later 20th Century, how the couple's one child understands his parents and their problems, and how he deals with all of it.

This book was a prize won browsing the “new books” display at the library. When I noticed that the author was a contributor to This American Life (Ira Glass, Public Radio International) I had to give it a try. I'm glad I did.

Daniel's father, “Bob,” is a strong yet unstable character; he's a window washer in a New England mill town. We hear Anna's complaint on page 7: “It wasn't the waitress in bed with him; it was the shit-eating grin that made her insane, the way he couldn't seem to wipe that smirk from his face.” As the story begins, Anna has thrown Bob out of the house, scattered his belongings on the front lawn, hung his clothes from tree branches. She is through with him, but he won't go away.

Daniel, ten years old, is visited at night by his father. Bob stands outside the boy's bedroom window, smoking, talking. He leaves money, and tries to convince Daniel to let him in.

Over time an uneasy truce between the separated partners develops. Daniel spends time during the day with Bob, helping him wash windows. He is taken along to bars with his father, given quarters to play pool, and returned home late.

Some of Anna's history is revealed. She is from New York, her family once well-to-do middle-class fallen on hard times (like the New England town in which she now lives), caught up in romantic love with Bob. Now her marriage is broken by his disloyalty and she seems profoundly depressed. She can hardly maintain her daily existence and care for her young son.

In the course of the story it is revealed that there was once a fight between Anna and her niece Joelyn regarding a ring, her mother's wedding ring, which has fallen into Joelyn's possession. This ring becomes the symbol of what once was Anna and Bob's marriage, and Daniel sees in its recovery the answer to fixing the breach in his family.

The story is so extremely well-written that it makes me despair trying to describe it with my own clumsy words. Lychack has a knack for a spare and precise turn of phrase. The portrayal of young Daniel and his parents is believable and heart-breaking, but Lychack ends his book with perspective and hope.

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