The Consequence of Skating, Steven Gillis, (Black Lawrence Press, 2010) Book Review by Duff Brenna
Mick Greene is an actor who does well enough in his chosen profession until he loses control of his drug habit, has a meltdown on stage and ends up in rehab jobless and on probation. Mick loves Darcie (an actress and femme fatale) but she only loves herself and doesn’t want anything to do with his lack of control. She leaves him, only to return later and exploit him. When it comes to Darcie, Mick confesses his weakness and foreshadows much of what is to come: “I loved her foolishly and completely, the way she stimulated and moved me exceeding affection, became quickly a need.” He also tells us that the heart invaded is infected; it’s a heart inflamed, which sums up nicely a major theme in the book: why relationships fail, “… mostly because we refuse to see the other person for who they really are.”
When he gets out of rehab, Mick does odd jobs, plumbing, drywall, sundry repairs for his brother Jay who flips houses and apartments. He also becomes a night watchman at an amusement park, which includes a skating rink and fish (lots of sharks) in an aquarium. He can’t get over losing Darcie. Dreams of Darcie haunt him. He dreams as well of Harold Pinter’s plays, especially Pinter’s Moonlight. In no small part The Consequence of Skating becomes a show of reverence for Pinter, which eventually makes the novel as rich and reflective as Freud snorting coke and holding forth about the subconscious forces that move and often rule us.
A nice juxtaposition of Pinter’s attitude and Mick’s father’s attitude about the way a man should behave comes early in the book:
Harold Pinter in Moonlight: My father was a very thorough man … He was a truly critical force … adhered strictly to the rule of law … which is not a very long way from the rule of thumb.
Mick Greene: My dad … was thorough by degrees, an analytical presence who managed to be generous and supporting. … He took me to plays, had me watch films I’d never heard of, with actors I’d never seen before.
Mick’s dad proves to be a seminal force, a man who adhered to the rule that to get anywhere in this life, you have to follow the laws of success: work hard, know the history of your chosen craft, be thorough, be analytical.
Good rules for anyone. Why didn’t they stick? Certainly Mick works hard enough. But like most of us, (saints exempted) he is innately flawed. Mick wants to live rationally—reason his way to ultimate truths, truths so compelling they will form and dictate his behavior. A strategy that doesn’t work. And can never work because that’s not how human nature works. How it works is caught by Gillis in a mirror, when he tells us: “… we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimeter and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections.” It’s a revelation reminiscent of Joyce’s remark in Ulysses when he compares the art of Ireland to a cracked looking glass, implying thereby Ireland’s schizophrenia. Gillis merely unbinds the image, makes it inexhaustible.
Opposed to Darcie, there is Sarah, a big-boned beautiful woman, with a gorgeous voice that mesmerizes Mick. Step by step he falls in love with her and his life seems to turn completely around. Sarah is good for him. As a reader, I found myself pulling for the Mick/ Sarah relationship big-time. But as Gillis knows, what we should do and what we actually do are actions based not on critical thinking, but on emotion. We are moved ultimately by feelings, inchoate and too deeply buried to unearth or intimately understand—even though at the time, we may believe we are “… recovering to the point of conformity” it’s not going to happen. You are who you are: a mystery to yourself and everyone else.
Other characters add their harmonies to the song that provides the rhythm of this multilayered novel: There is Cam, a twelve-year-old boy, a brilliant skater, whose mother Kate is dying of cancer; there is Bob, Cam’s brother, home from the Iraq War (minus his legs); there is Ted the blogger, an idealist who puts himself in harm’s way because of the turmoil and savagery in Iran; there are the men struggling to climb K-2 who become a metaphor and a forewarning of Mick’s struggle with his own mountain, the urges and the tenuous grip he has on his newly reformed life; there are actors and actresses mentioned, an encyclopedia of them and of movies and plays that make a Gillian point about life that usually has its truth between the lines, a subtle belief in determinism, the consequences of making a wrong move that moves your life in the wrong direction, an accident so-called. But as Gillis puts it in various ways: “These accidents are foreseeable.” Later, both Kate and Bob tell Mick when he tries to explain that his renewed relationship with Darcie is an accident, “There are no accidents!”
Included in the narrative is what Gillis calls “The Grand Plan.” This is an ideal cooked up by Ted, the computer genius who earlier found a way to put certain faces (your girlfriend, your wife, yourself) on women and men playing parts in porno movies. He comes to regret his handiwork and turns to creating a program called Government Objectivity Design (G.O.D.), which “… relies on history, praxeology and ethics to present an objective methodological synthesis … dependent on all things that came before.” The idea is to use the wisdom of the world from ancient Mesopotamia and Greece, Renaissance England, China, Germany, America, monarchies, oligarchies, democracies, great thinkers of history. Great ideas and the great names behind them are downloaded in order to create a program that can find “serviceable solutions” to the world’s multifarious problems social, ethical, political. A noble idea. An idea for a logical world. Ted is actually able to test his “program” on Robert Mugabe in Africa. The results are just what you think they’ll be, but the explanation of how it unravels is riveting. Gillis is as focused as Nietzsche at the top of his game by the time he concludes, not in defeat but with realistic resignation: “G.O.D. is dead.”
The Consequence of Skating is a work intent on writing its way to some sort of truth. “What’s it all about?” the book is saying, while giving us a compelling lead character, screwed up, weak in some respects, strong in others, a man full of boundless questions and ideas, a man who seems to be chewing infinite food for thought. It is a psychological exploration of the whys and wherefores; it is warm, gracious, heart-breaking, heart-healing, cunning, generous to a fault. Its author may even be something of a savant, at least in the Freudian sense of those who have a nearly preternatural gift for exposing the puzzling layers of human experience, bewildering, confusing—yet worthy of endless rumination, worthy of a lifetime’s meditation.
People: “Even when you think you have them all figured out, you can never be sure what to expect.”
DUFF BRENNA is the author of six novels. He is the recipient of an AWP Award for Best Novel, a National Endowment for the Arts Award, a South Florida Sun-Sentinel Award for Favorite Book of the year, a Milwaukee Magazine Best Short Story of the Year Award, and a Pushcart Prize.
STEVEN GILLIS is the author of the novels Walter Falls (2003), The Weight of Nothing (2005), and Temporary People (2008). Steve’s stories, articles and book reviews have appeared in over four dozen journals. A collection of Steve’s stories—titled Giraffes—was published in February, 2007. A three-year member of the Ann Arbor Book Festival Board of Directors, and a finalist for the 2007 Ann Arbor News Citizen of the Year, Steve taught writing at Eastern Michigan University and is the founder of 826michigan and the co-founder of Dzanc Books in partnership with Dan Wickett.