Katelynn was alone in bed inside her parents' lakeside house the day she saw the duck boat go under, and no one was where he or she should be.
Her father, on the other side of the world, in Myanmar, was in the company of his Burmese "wife." Her mother, on the other side of Hawk Lake, was fresh from the arms of Jerry Fishash. Jerry, son of a rich, businessman father, grandson of an artist grandfather, was choosing, for the time being, to inherit neither life. And the captain of that "duck boat" (a bus on wheels one minute, a boat on water the next, one of those "quick-change artists of the transportation world" salvaged from World War II) is Louisa, ex-nurse, official senior citizen by her own account. Louisa was going under too but fighting to free the water's surface, while six of her seven passengers tourists in the nearby bathhouse resort town in Arkansas, out for a day on Hawk Lake stayed under and drowned.
Katelynn's fighting her own fight, not going down the way Jenelle, her best friend, senior year, high school, went under after the two of them dipped their cigarettes into a barrel of mercury for a quick high, Jenelle dead from the poisoning, Katelynn, now, "a human thermometer, all pulse and response," but on a slow road to recovery. Harvey, Jenelle's boyfriend, the guy who led them to the mercury in an abandoned neon factory, is on his own road, and he's not where he should be, not what he should be either: gone but only for the time being, a secret 24-year-old who returned to high school to act as star pole-vaulter, getting high school this time "right," until what seemed a matter of course Jenelle, star student in the looks department, Harvey's future wife; Katelynn, "second prettiest," second fiddle, outlook unknown goes way off course.
Or is "off course" the real way of the world, the one clear way things have of showing us they're other than what they seem, as Katelynn sees for herself inside the pages of Cary Holladay's wonderful debut novel, Mercury (from Shaye Areheart Books)? Katelynn: poisoned by mercury but freed by mercury from "the hair spray and volumizer, eye shadow and blusher, all the practicing in the mirror to achieve the right expression" and freed into what? Adult life for a change, and it's slippery, it hurts.
But mercury ... what is it really? Mythical messenger sent to us to say what's what? Medical cure-all, as in the mercury "baths" once performed in Katelynn's very own home town? Or tanner of hides, the maker of "mad hatters," as once was the case in Louisa's mother's native New England? Or is it more mirror to life regardless of time or place? As when Katelynn catches sight of herself, staring down into that barrel inside that former factory, seeing "her drowning silver face," the mercury turned "well," "lake," "sea," "ocean," Katelynn thinks, high on fumes, herself for once "exposed," "all her pretenses ... burned away" should she survive such a sight, and she does.
"Nobody is what they seem to be," Katelynn says so herself, as Louisa says of her beloved duck boat, "land-self to sea-self" with the flip of a switch. So too the land/water wonders of the natural world that fill this intricate novel a tree frog once found in an Ozark Christmas tree, a tortoise housed as house pet before it too is sent to the bottom of Hawk Lake, Hawk Lake itself rendered as a field of grain to be, according to Jerry's land-minded father, "reaped." So with such added, unnatural wonders as Tunica's casino landscape: "They claim they're boats, but they ain't ... . It's some law, they got to say they float," says Dora, a wild woman with her eye on Jerry and an eye to blowing those casinos to smithereens, when, with her natural smarts, what she'd be better off doing is aiming for law school. But that's the size of a novel that's brimming with characters who cover more territory than can be covered in this simple summary and that Holladay describes with crystal-clear understanding, wry humor, and very sizable heart.
"I felt like it was a process of learning to read their hearts, as they were learning to read each others' hearts," Holladay says of the characters in Mercury. "And in fiction, as in life, that's a very useful device, but it's not always that easy to do. But I keep a journal of what I'm writing and I write what a character wants, what the obstacles internally and externally are to achieving those desires. I saw both Louisa and Katelynn as very much survivors. But Katelynn is apt to be asking, Am I pretty enough? Will I be happy? Will I have someone to love me? When Louisa, in a sense, has tried to avoid asking those question all her life. She's immersed herself in work all these years. Now she's reemerging."
Just as Holladay is emerging as novelist from the ranks of writers known previously for their short stories. (In 1999, her story "Merry-Go-Sorry" won an O. Henry Award to go with her two short-story collections.) Just as this summer she leaves her job as public-affairs manager for the Memphis Park Commission and reemerges in the classroom to teach creative writing at the University of Memphis (where her husband, poet John Bensko, also teaches), after past teaching posts at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania, and Rhodes College. Did the switch to novel-writing take getting used to?
"I had dabbled with writing a novel before," Holladay says. "But this was really the first novel I tackled full-steam. I was just 'caught' by the characters, their families. They took on a life of their own.
"We live our lives in a series of moments and events, and accruing material, for a short story or a novel, is how I work. But with a novel you've got the scope to cover a lot of emotional distance. Of course, you can do that in a short story too, but it's more concentrated. I just felt very ready to write. After my story won the O. Henry, I was contacted by several agents, and the one I went with asked if I had another manuscript. I said I'd started on a novel, but I was only 25 pages into it. He said send it, and he sold it right away. Editor Shaye Areheart she'd just gotten her own imprint at Random House was very helpful, excellent with suggestions. She and my agent are literary people in the best sense of the word."
Holladay cites writers Alice Munro, Lee Smith, Chris Bohjalian, and Lewis Nordan as key contemporaries but recalls recently "being caught" by a quote she discovered by G.K. Chesterton which fit her feelings on Mercury especially: "We must learn to love life without ever trusting it."
According to Holladay, "I thought that's exactly what these people are trying to do Louisa and Katelynn with their consciences that won't leave them alone, all the characters, their relentless memories. It's what these people are going to have to do."
With or without mercury's curse or cure.
Cary Holladay signing and reading from Mercury
Burke's Book Store
Thursday, May 23rd
5 to 7 p.m.