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September 2021 Issue [Reviews]

Boston Gothic

Atticus Lish’s novel of illness, masculinity, and murder
“Boy,” by Gerald Slota, from the series A Here After © The artist

“Boy,” by Gerald Slota, from the series A Here After © The artist


Boston Gothic

Atticus Lish’s novel of illness, masculinity, and murder

Discussed in this essay:

The War for Gloria, by Atticus Lish. Knopf. 464 pages. $28.

The boy has talent, secret or not so secret, but he is stuck. Something—maybe alcohol, maybe orphanhood, maybe bad parents, maybe a history of abuse, maybe friends who get him into mischief—has been holding him back. There is a beautiful world out there that could be his, and a beautiful woman too. It might be as simple as moving across the river or as grand as heading west. First he needs to heal, and he needs to try to heal. And there are things, people—maybe his best friend—that he’ll have to renounce. Most of all he needs to get out of town, a town full of deadbeats, crooks, snitches, and jerkoffs, not to mention child molesters, wife beaters, thieves, and murderers. If he doesn’t get out, he’ll end up cracking rocks on a construction site, working at the airport, in law enforcement and on the take, or just dead.

The town is Boston, and the boy or man-child I’m describing could be, with variations and inversions, the protagonist of any number of movies set there in the past twenty-five years: Matt Damon’s Will in Good Will Hunting; Leonardo DiCaprio’s Billy in The Departed; Ben Affleck’s Doug in The Town; Casey Affleck’s Lee in Manchester by the Sea. You’ve probably seen these films, or perhaps parodies of them. They have congealed into a genre. Boston, with its mix of Brahmins, university-affiliated elites, yuppies, and white ethnic working stiffs (Irish and Italians) makes a plausible backdrop for interclass dramas that accommodate mostly white casts. These characters inhabit a city transitioning from a culture of honor and religion to one of therapy and meritocracy. Call it moral gentrification.

Hollywood and indie films in the Boston Gothic mode trade in tropes of class aspiration, stasis, and descent. The Boston male, the “Masshole,” a genius at math or hockey or fishing, is pathologized: he needs to go to a shrink, or to AA, because he can no longer go to confession the way his grandfather did (see Spotlight). If he makes himself whole, he can win the love of a fancy woman, maybe one who goes to Harvard, or works for a bank, or is the therapist herself (the neat twist of The Departed). There is usually a foil who is satisfied with his lot—a life of backyard barbecues, getting wasted on weekends at the local tap, marrying one of his childhood neighbors and having a brood of kids like a good Catholic—or is perhaps fated to do time, like Christian Bale’s disgraced boxer Dicky in The Fighter. The lesson of these movies is that, while it may be hard to be a woman or a person of color from modest circumstances (as Billy tells his fellow trainee in The Departed: “You’re a black guy in Boston—you don’t need any help from me to be completely fucked”), it’s hard to be a white man, too, especially one burdened with talent. But transcendence is possible.

There is obviously a market for this stuff. As a Masshole from Hopkinton (twenty-six miles west of the city, where the Boston Marathon starts), I can’t get enough of these movies, but as a critic I wouldn’t normally waste three paragraphs of a novel review discussing popular Hollywood fare. It was with surprise, then, that these films came to mind when I opened The War for Gloria, the new book by Atticus Lish, whose first novel, Preparation for the Next Life (2014), was one of the finest of the past decade. Lish not only invokes, engages with, and subverts the modes of the Hollywood Boston Gothic—he dives headlong into them.

Preparation for the Next Life, published by the independent Tyrant Books, was greeted with near-universal acclaim and awarded the 2015 PEN/Faulkner Award and the 2016 Grand Prix de Littérature Américaine. The novel is a love story and a stylistic triumph. Part of its force comes from the way it defamiliarizes New York City, presenting it through the eyes of a pair of strangers who have come to town as if from the ends of the earth. Zou Lei, the daughter of a Muslim woman from northwestern China and a Han Chinese army sergeant, and Brad Skinner, a native of southwestern Pennsylvania who served three tours in Iraq, fall in love in Flushing, Queens, after meeting at the eatery where she makes noodles. They bond over a shared fondness for fitness, beer, and military life. Zou Lei is undocumented, has been detained in the United States by immigration authorities, and fears encounters with law enforcement. Skinner suffers from PTSD. Lish is an exquisite set piece writer, but the power of his narration, mostly in third person, except when one of the pair breaks out to tell a story in their speaking voice, comes from its restraint in the use of free indirect discourse. We may be inside their heads, seeing what they see, but their thoughts only come to us sparingly. Relentless access to the internal effusions of literary characters is so common in American fiction that Lish’s technique has a special force. Occasionally the perspective zooms out and we see the characters the way an onlooker might. Here is Skinner entering New York City, having just hitchhiked through Pennsylvania and New Jersey with a trucker:

Now he was cutting through monumental project towers, his silhouette distorted by what he was carrying, a burdened figure moving steadily across the great barren landscape of giant shadows and building structures and cold lights filtering down. A single car was parked against a line of gated storefronts exploding with graffiti—huge, wild, blazing—the letters pumped up like muscles about to burst, like smoke bulging, billowing, swelling in a bubble over the steel and concrete walls, like everything was on fire. He crossed the open area, a solitary figure carrying his gear, and reentered the shadow on the other side.

The effects are masterful, cinematic in the best way, with marks of the influence of DeLillo, Hemingway, and ultimately Gertrude Stein. Concrete realism is sometimes the term used for this style. Lish’s sentences are carved out of granite.

At the sentence level, the same can be said of The War for Gloria. But the book is an unstable hybrid, unbearably poignant until it turns improbably pulpy, pitting a set of intricate characters against a pair of villains who seem to have escaped from a caricature factory managed by Charles Dickens in Hell. Both of the novel’s two main strands are nightmares: first, the slow decline of a single mother with ALS, the Gloria of the title, narrated in meticulous detail mostly, but not entirely, from the point of view of her teenage son; next, a thriller plot involving two murders and a suicide. The first is a cruel act of nature, a painful and humiliating ordeal that tests the characters’ capacities for mercy and care but then cannot be defeated or reversed. The second is a morality play in which blame can be laid, revenge can be had, and justice or its opposite might be served. Following one after the other, these plots constitute the sorrows of Corey Goltz, the teenage boy who unites them, and the moralized events of the second unfold as if they are psychic compensation for the inevitably fatal trajectory of the first. The real war in this book may be between genres: elegy and bildungsroman on the one hand and gothic thriller on the other. The clash is fascinating.

The book’s primary zones of interest are Cambridge and Quincy, by the north and south ends of the MBTA’s Red Line, respectively. I’ve lived in Cambridge and my grandfather lived in Quincy when I was a child in the Eighties, and I’ve never seen them evoked in such brilliant detail and with such total control on the page. The War for Gloria deserves a place beside David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Jean Stafford’s Boston Adventure, and William Dean Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham, not to mention the crime novels of Dennis Lehane, Robert B. Parker, and George V. Higgins. These lists suggest that there are two main strands of Boston literature: one of shabby gentility, of characters with educations and aspirations at the edges of the middle class; and one of pulp fiction, of murder and mayhem across classes and among an underclass that survives on the borders of criminality. The War for Gloria partakes of both traditions.

In the early Nineties, Gloria Goltz comes east to Cambridge from Springfield to attend Lesley College, the teacher’s college between Harvard Square and Somerville on Massachusetts Avenue. Despite dreams of changing the world and overthrowing the patriarchy as a writer or scholar, she struggles in school, becomes an anarchist and a habitué of the pit by the Harvard Square T stop, a waitress, a barmaid, a barista, and will soon drop out. She is charmed by Leonard Agoglia, an eccentric security guard at MIT and a native of hardscrabble East Boston, who claims to be an amateur physicist, on the verge of proving the existence of multiple universes. The first affair results in a pregnancy she terminates without telling him; the second, begun in 1995, in a child he demands she keep. But Leonard does not stick around, and Gloria and her son, Corey, lead an itinerant and precarious life around Boston.

The boy becomes the center of her life and her comfort when she gets “the blues.” There is, for a time, a romance with Joan, a roommate in Cleveland Circle, half-Japanese, who hails from the streets of Oakland and San Francisco. By the time the novel’s action begins, Gloria and Joan have split because of Gloria’s disinclination to cut Leonard out of her life, and Gloria and Corey are living in a house in Quincy. Obama is in office, and Corey is fifteen years old. It’s at this time that Gloria is diagnosed with ALS, the symptoms of which appear just as she’s resolved to resume her intellectual striving: “All of a sudden, all she wanted to do was write. That was when she noticed that the thumb on her left hand had stopped obeying her.”

Over the three years of her illness, the “war for Gloria” will be fought between Corey, and sometimes Joan, on one side, and Leonard on the other. Gloria deteriorates, becomes sidelined from her job in social services, and goes on public assistance; Corey takes a series of jobs to help make ends meet, drops out of high school, and takes up martial arts, becoming a competitive cage fighter; Joan moves in with mother and son for a year but leaves after the ghosts of her shared past with Gloria return; Leonard also moves in for phases but is expelled by Corey after a pair of confrontations, the second of which leads to the teenager vandalizing his father’s car and facing arrest. Corey seeks out surrogate family members: “Corey had a lot of fathers—he found them everywhere.” Chief among them is Tom Hibbard, a widower and metalworker who helps him find his first jobs. In Tom’s daughter, Molly, a teenager a year ahead of him in school, he finds someone like a big sister who also becomes the object of his first romantic longings. And then, fatefully, there is Adrian Reinhardt, a boy a year older than Corey, a senior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School bound for MIT. Like Corey, Adrian is a loner with a fixation on fitness and a mother with a terminal disease. Both kids are trying to figure out how to be men after their de facto abandonment by bad fathers.

In Corey’s world, Gloria, Joan, Tom, and Molly are generally benevolent presences: they help him in his struggles to grow and to care for his mother. They aren’t idealized figures but rounded characters, with flaws and quirks that bring to mind those of the initial romance between Zou Lei and Skinner in Preparation. Gloria has aspirations for Corey: that he’ll study hard, go to college, and have the kind of creative and political life she imagined for herself. Hers is the meritocratic dream of “getting out.” Joan, Tom, and Molly are happy enough to observe Corey maturing into a life of working-class dignity. Molly herself goes off to UMass Amherst, where she’s a track star, with plans to study small-business administration and return to work with her father. Lish’s writing about Corey’s work and his cage fighting displays a virtuosic level of detail as the boy undergoes trials and humiliations and learns how to keep his jobs and win his matches. Similarly fine is the attention Lish pays to Gloria’s decline: her falls, her loss of language, and at last her loss of mobility. The portrait is heartbreaking.

The father-son relationship between Leonard and Corey has a different cast. Leonard speaks in rhythms that set him apart from almost everyone else in the book. He has charisma, and Gloria, “his biggest champion,” never quite comes out from under his spell. He cultivates an air of thwarted genius: he could have been a second Richard Feynman, or a valiant cop, or a master criminal like Whitey Bulger. “If you listened to the story of Leonard’s life as Gloria told it,” Lish writes, “apparently Leonard had discovered his gift for scientific thought much the same way Siddhartha had found enlightenment one day beneath the banyan tree.” (Gloria’s Buddhism is a tentative inheritance of Corey’s, something the teenager picks up and puts down.) That Leonard is able to pursue his shadowy study of physics even as he works during the day as a campus cop prompts Corey to think that, more than once, “he had heard his mother and her friends comparing Leonard to Good Will Hunting.”

The invocation of Good Will Hunting is striking because, as the novel goes on, it becomes clear that Lish has conceived of Leonard as a sort of Bad Will Hunting, a grunt with fraudulent pretensions, whose implausible dreams of advancing far beyond his station have distorted his personality and turned him into not just a crank, but a menace. For a time, Corey basks in his glow and listens, rapt, to his monologues:

“Look, Corey, you have to understand: I grew up different from you. It was a very different time. We had rumbles. . . . I got called every name in the book: pinko, commie. I had these kids in my school who were dead set on fighting me. . . . I said we could fight, but we had to go to this place I knew. We had these marshes, these flats where I dug for clams. I knew exactly how far away it was; it was two miles exactly from where we were. I thought they’d say forget it and the fight would be off. But they were willing to walk the whole two miles for the chance to beat up a communist.”

“What happened?”

“The fight didn’t go the way they thought it would.”

“You mean, you beat up two guys?”

“I find that when you know boxing and wrestling, you can do pretty well in most fights, and I knew boxing and wrestling.”

“That’s so awesome,” Corey said.

The conversation goes on, and Leonard reveals both jealousy of Corey’s relationship with Gloria and a sadistic streak: “I talked a certain somebody out of flushing you,” he tells the boy. Corey responds: “Your parents didn’t like you either, so I guess we’re the same.”

The terror Corey feels that he and his father might be “the same” has a parallel in Corey’s friendship with Adrian. A middle-class child of divorced parents, Adrian studies physics and math beyond classroom demands, works out obsessively, and has an idiosyncratic theory of personal hygiene designed to keep others away from him—he never bathes, smells awful, and farts obstreperously. He wears a cup everywhere to protect his genitals: he suffers from a castration fear directed at his mother (who he remembers putting on a Halloween mask and attacking him with scissors when he was a boy), his father (who once took him to an Ohio whorehouse, where he caught the clap), and women generally. He exposes himself to women in public. He keeps rotting meat from the cafeteria tacked to the bulletin board by his desk in his dorm, where he is a pariah. Notwithstanding a brief fling with a classmate and fellow weirdo during his sophomore year at MIT, Adrian is shunned by women, fears them, and views them with contempt. There’s a word to describe Adrian, one Lish must have had in mind: he is an incel.

At first Adrian seems a darkly comic character, pathetic if not exactly sympathetic. Corey is drawn to him for his oddness, his intensity, and their shared status as outcasts, but he’s put off by Adrian’s public exposure on the Charles River Esplanade, by his expressions of hatred for his own mother (who happens to be undergoing chemotherapy), and by the mounting sense that Adrian is simply selfish and a bad friend. If The War for Gloria were merely a bildungsroman with elements of tragic elegy, we might expect some comic and harmless resolution to their relationship. (For hundreds of pages, that’s what I was expecting.) Instead, Adrian becomes a sort of protégé to Leonard. They watch pornography together on campus, and visit strip clubs on the outskirts of Boston. It’s difficult to tell at first whether their pairing is a means of bringing in morbid comic relief during Gloria’s decline, or whether the duo constitute Chekhov’s gun, with Leonard’s idle comments about crime and punishment catalyzing Adrian’s overactive misogynist imagination. In the end, Adrian’s transformation from frustrated weirdo into psycho killer happens abruptly, and largely offstage, as if Leonard, who likes to ramble on about murder, possesses demonic powers of suggestion.

Suddenly we have been shoved into a different kind of book with a different relationship to language. Lish has a great lyrical talent, one on display in restrained flashes throughout. He describes Leonard’s relations with Gloria: “His tie to Corey’s mother had stretched and attenuated over the miles and years like a strand of spiderweb, floating invisibly in the atmosphere until it touched the face.” One afternoon, Corey finds Molly at home sunbathing, and his callused hand brushes her hip: “Across the border of the nylon, her skin was smooth as a space-age polymer. It was only possible to invent that polymer by playing with millions of atoms for millions of years.” There is an aesthetic faculty at work here, one with resources in language beyond the thoughts in the characters’ heads. That intelligence is still operational when the novel turns to its murder plot, but the lyricism coarsens and becomes grotesque. Here is the discovery of Adrian’s corpse:

Cambridge Fire Rescue found Adrian inside his mother’s walls. Large fuzzy pink curtains of fiberglass insulation obscured his body. A fireman moved them aside and found the MIT student bent backwards with his legs pinned by the F-150’s still-hot grill. His head was covered in plaster dust like a kabuki dancer’s. Pink strands of fiberglass stuck to his whiskers. The top of his skull had ruptured. An oval of bone was missing from above his hairline, and a pink bubblegum-colored tongue of meat had jumped from his head—like a frog shooting its tongue at a fly. The meat was his brain and it had intestinal coils.

That “pink bubblegum-colored tongue of meat,” a frog’s tongue from the head of a kabuki dancer that is actually the fragment of a brain—a mind the writer of these words has shown us in glimpses before orchestrating its owner’s death. What a gruesome end for a once promising, if disturbed, young man. And what a strange genius, this author, of a novel full of such tenderness and violence, such oedipal love and oedipal rage. Its last pages are a fantasy of Corey’s future as he’s about to enlist in the Navy with aspirations of becoming a SEAL and hunting down evil men, men he imagines to be like his father. He dreams too of a woman, a scholar who will analyze his war, someone very much like Gloria: “My mother could have done that, he thinks. She could have overcome herself.” Overcoming yourself—is that what this is all about? While Gloria and her friends were calling Leonard Good Will Hunting, was she the real secret genius? Corey’s not so secret talent is for suffering and fighting, themes that also enchant Atticus Lish. As Corey takes the oath of service in the book’s last lines, it’s hard not to imagine a future of pain and nightmares awaiting him, a future not unlike Brad Skinner’s in Preparation for the Next Life. But what choice does he have? When all your family and all your friends are dead or estranged, there’s only one thing to do: get the hell out of Boston.

s most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Literature After Trump,” appeared in the February 2021 issue.

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