THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Call me Lucy

Unlike Ishmael, underachieving librarian falls short as narrator in this unlikely odyssey

(Claire Scully for The Boston Globe)
By Richard Eder
Globe Correspondent / June 26, 2011

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The “I” trap. Attractively baited for the uncertain novelist. Easy to get into. Hard to get out of with much advantage.

Great novels written in the first person require one of two conditions. In “Moby Dick,” Ishmael is essentially a window, though tinted with metaphysical light.

The other option requires becoming a guide of sorts. To play an active part, to become a participant with one hand while clutching our elbow with the other, it is necessary for character and voice to possess an autonomous savor and thrust. Otherwise, like kindergarten’s show and tell, the “I” risks becoming an ego trip. The trip grows very long in the company of a fellow traveler who produces little to enliven it, beyond a “see me: here I am.” Huck Finn triumphs because he is, in himself and beyond what he relates, a figure of such winning crag and sheen.

Lucy Hull narrates Rebecca Makkai’s “The Borrower” with a self-conscious ruefulness that makes it hard to enter into the highly improbable adventure she tells, much less get it to serve as a sign of our anomic times. It takes the form of a 1,000-mile flight by car to remove a helpless young passenger from persecution. Not altogether unlike Huck’s river trip to help Jim flee slavery. Except that after a few miles a reader may feel like slipping off the raft.

Lucy, daughter of a wealthy Russian-born father of dubious connections and holder of a degree summa cum laude from Mount Holyoke College, has cast aside these advantages to work as an assistant librarian in a small Missouri town. Hannibal, in fact. She agrees with her father that she’s made too little of herself, but pursues this too little as if it were much. It is her own form of protest against the American values of ambition and achievement; a flag burning, if you like, though with the tiniest of matches and lowest of temperatures.

Of equally low temperature is the protest adventure she undertakes. Worried about Ian, a 10-year-old book lover whose fundamentalist mother seeks to rid him of suspected gay tendencies by sending him for de-programming to the sleazy Pastor Bob, Lucy finds herself helping him run away from home. “Finds herself,” because like everything else about Lucy, there is a disconnect between herself, her actions, even her feelings.

Ian, more purposeful than she, manages to get her to drive him on what she believes will be a brief flight. Instead it turns into a rambling journey all the way to northern Vermont. When she feebly protests, proposing to notify the police, he threatens to denounce her for kidnapping. Her periodic low-energy attempts to turn back are foiled by his stubborn determination. Ian may be a victim, but he is also a spoiled American brat.

They stop for a brief stay with Lucy’s indulgent father in Chicago; she invents a story of taking the boy to stay with family friends. The father gives her $1,000 and a package to deliver to Leo, a rich Russian associate in Pittsburgh. Leo and his wife shower them with hospitality; Leo also reveals that as a boy, Lucy’s father — besotted by fables about young Communist heroes — denounced his grandfather to the authorities for illicitly dealing in chocolate.

The journey’s zigzag route takes them through Vermont. They eat junk food, go to see a saint’s relic in a small church. Ian vaguely insists that he has a grandmother somewhere around, then turns to speculating that she may be dead and that they must visit her grave, then that she was a great- great-great-grandmother and a man, in fact.

None of this matters or even hangs together. Lucy numbly goes along with Ian’s continually shifting purposes. He is, after all, only 10, and his decisions have the vehemence and instability of a child’s game of make-believe — one he will abandon to go home for supper. He does indeed abandon it, leaving Lucy out on the 1,000-mile limb she has crawled along after him, having none of her own.

In Lucy, Makkai seems to propose a contemporary kind of protagonist, one in whom the virtual plays the role that passion or purpose once did. Her disconnect, though, is not just with herself but with her narrating voice. It is agile and inventive and on occasion politically barbed. There is a satirical passage where she imagines Americans colonizing Canada and driving the Canadians into reservations.

“The friendlier ones would teach us how to drill for oil. They’d trade us Montreal for a handful of beads. Within a few generations, the sight of a real Canadian would be rare. Our children would dress like them for Halloween. We’d name our country clubs after their fallen chiefs.”

It’s witty, but hardly enough. Voice needs to be connected to speaker if it is to take us anywhere. Otherwise it is like the finger wiggles that are used to signal quote marks. Making a story, for instance, a “story.” To be read by a “reader?”

Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at richardgeder@gmail.com.

THE BORROWER
By Rebecca Makkai
Viking, 324 pp., $25.95