This is the story of a girl named Cassie, whom we meet at, oh, ten years of age and follow until she is about 30. Her mother is from New Orleans but as a young girl followed a handsome pool player named Jimmy to a little town in Indiana, where they married. They had two daughters, Belle and Cassie, but Jimmy was a bad choice from the start, never sticking around long, mostly continuing to shack up with his prior fiance. He’s not a terribly good father to the girls, but through him Cassie learns to worship the pool table he plays on. It’s not Jimmy but his brother, Cassie’s Uncle Bud, who teaches her to play; and this is how she makes her living, supplemented by the odd day labor.
The fact that Cassie is an extraordinary pool player is not the point of her story, although it does help define her personality and her tendency to be roughly competitive. Her appreciation for geometry and order help her make sense of the world. She is also a handywoman, outdoorsy, and a good and generous friend if not loquacious. Early in life she worships Jimmy, but that will change.
Cassie reminded me of the protagonist of Once Upon a River. Both young women are untameable and live by their own rules on the edge of the civilized world. Both are sensitive and vulnerable despite being strong and capable. Laura, Cassie’s mother, is a proud, damaged Southern belle out of a Tennessee Williams play, but stronger; Belle, Cassie’s older sister, goes quite nuts under the strain of Jimmy’s failures and Laura’s anger. Laura and Belle are literary women, and Cassie by contrast feels that she is not, but she does awfully much reading & writing (partly to communicate with her mother and sister) for a woman without literary leanings of her own. I think this is something she doesn’t see in herself, but it’s there.
The story is full of drab, flat, gray American landscape and the ennui of the working class upon it, which is also a somewhat familiar theme; but it’s evoked so crisp-and-clearly, so beautifully, that it took my breath away. I shared a teaser with you the other day, but I couldn’t stop collecting more exemplary turns of phrase:
- “Every day was a vaccination.”
- “‘Howdy’ was always ironic, except when it became a habit. And then it was the speaker’s entire life that descended into irony, and later into self-parody. Cassie studied Wally’s face in profile but couldn’t tell where he stood.”
- “Cassie was the daughter of a great romance, if what was meant by romance was wreckage.”
- “CDs instead of records, but the songs she wanted to hear: if that didn’t sum up the struggle.”
A large part of what I loved about this book was Cassie, her story, the strange sad beauty of her life & her world; but another large part was the lovely way with words that Kimmel employs. This book is a poem. And the audio reading was divine as well: Chelsey Rives renders Laura’s New Orleans accent, Belle’s nervous worryings, and Cassie’s clipped tones perfectly. I didn’t want this book to end, not least because I wanted to know what happened next, but also because I wanted to hear Chelsey tell me more about the sultry Gulf Coast and the knockings of the pool balls at Uncle Bud’s.
Something Rising (Light and Swift) is a sad story, but with all the dignified grace of the greatest sad stories, and although Tennessee Williams peeks out here and there, there’s far more hope in Cassie’s world than there is in TW’s: this is also a coming-of-age story, and ends with a possible future. I wish I could follow Cassie into it.
Clearly I loved this book, and recommend the audio highly. And… I’m off to find more Haven Kimmel.