Pelletier’s novel full of colorful characters but not much plot

THE ONE-WAY BRIDGE

By Cathie Pelletier

Sourcebooks, Inc., $24.99;
287 pp.

Rather than risk a creative hernia trying to conjure up an entirely invented landscape (e.g., Faulkner/Yoknapatawpha), novelists tend to avoid the heavy lifting by simply tinkering with a given municipality (e.g., Joyce/Dublin). In her tenth novel, The One-Way Bridge, Cathie Pelletier returns to Mattagash, Maine, the fictional homestead painstakingly constructed bay window-by-bay window in several of her earlier works. It’s a setting whose native population she once again brings to life with inspired comic panache.

As with her locale, Pelletier’s central character, Harry Plunkett, is cut from wholly imagined cloth. In fact, he wears the uniform of a Vietnam War veteran. And as the author confesses in an afterword, she has never set foot anywhere near Southeast Asia. So she worries that her military “facts and terms” are “correct.” She needn’t. As an Army brat, I can attest to their correctness. But as every novelist knows, if the reader is entranced with the fiction then facts be damned. The real heart of the matter, of course, is the emotional staying power of the work. Nearly 30 years after her first novel was lauded on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, Pelletier proves that she still has the legs to break out of the pack of contemporary novelists.

Literary fiction tends to eschew plot and The One-Way Bridge eschews it with the best of them. If Pelletier doesn’t entirely thumb her nose at Aristotle’s mythos, she is clearly more interested in looking under the hood than she is in any car chase. Indeed, she purposely stalls her narrative on a one-way bridge where her two stubborn central characters engage in a Mexican standoff. Why neither is willing to give the other the right-of-way offers all the plot and thus all the means the author requires for her end. And that is to explore why people seem to behave in such self-destructive ways. Comedy ensues and with it an hilarious precis of the human condition.

The characters can be crude (“You’re still trying to keep up to your sister’s heels … ” Mama Sal says to her daughter, Edna. “If Bertina was to (expletive) blue, you’d be drinking ink all day”), pigheaded (“It was a known fact that Tommy was hard on machines and women, and in that order. He had apparently developed a philosophy in kindergarten that he stuck to over the years. If it ain’t broke, break it”), or just downright dumb (Staring at the numbers as they turn on the gas pump, Buck asks his friend, Billy, how the machine knows when it’s done. “Billy stared at him. Sometimes, he didn’t know for certain if Buck was fooling around or if he was sincerely stupid”).

But like Pelletier’s fictional world, the characters who inhabit it are never flat. Mama Sal is, on the rare occasion, capable of warmth (“You’re the only one of my three children to have a successful marriage,” she says to her daughter, Edna. “I’m proud of you.”), take-charge Tommy is ironically fated (“… one rainy night, he would fall asleep at the wheel, having done too many hours on the road for too little money. He would fall asleep and die in a fiery crash on the interstate north of Atlanta, Georgia.”), and even the intellectually challenged Buck possesses a certain depth (“That’s when Buck’s face smiled again, a forgiving face, a face filled with enough kindness to override all the regret.”).

There has long been something of a philosophical civil war between novelists, a line drawn in the sand between basically two opposing camps. There are the abolitionists who believe that their characters take on lives of their own with the author little more than their amanuensis. And those, like Nabokov, who insist that they are galley slaves who will feel the whip of the master should they ever presume to think outside the narrative box. In The One-Way Bridge, Pelletier has taken up arms in defense of the author as commander-in-chief. Whatever she imagines goes. No questions asked, certainly not from any of her characters. Like all accomplished parodists, she makes them toe the narrative line that the rest of us might see why we seem so often in life to trip over our own club feet.