November 20, 2018

Rudderless Until Redemption

"Under Radar" by Michael Tolkin (Atlantic Monthly Press, $23).

Recently, I heard Michael Tolkin speak at Temple Beth Am about "Under Radar." Pacing frenetically, he explained that midway through the writing he had stalled and shelved the manuscript. During that time, slipping on his own spiritual path — parallel to the novel’s — he had ransacked various synagogues for answers and had succeeded only in worrying his wife.

Tolkin has regained his footing, and in this magnificent novel, so has his main character, Tom Levy. Best-known for his screenplay of "The Player" (based on his first novel) and for scripts like "Changing Lanes," Tolkin writes characters who move through a mire of moral and spiritual ambiguity. Like their creator, they don’t have an easy time of it.

"Under Radar" chronicles one such man’s journey to redemption. Tom — bourgeois, bored, banal, prone to fantasizing — always selects a woman to mentally focus on while vacationing with his wife and two daughters. During a Caribbean vacation, unable at first to find anyone appealing, Tom finally settles on an attractive, short-haired mother with a rotund, silken-tongued husband. After a small slight, Tom casually commits an act which rightfully lands him in a Jamaican prison for life. There, he does not melt into the boredom, as he expected he would, but changes.

The novel effortlessly unfolds in thirds: the family vacation, Tom’s prison time and unexpected escape, and his years of sailing the seas with a couple he meets on the Jamaican docks. His travels land him for a crucial time in Fiji, where Tolkin returns to his interest in evangelicals.

A married couple who own the beachfront hotel undergo their own spiritual crises, triggered by their teenage son, who turns out to be at odds with their murderous preparations for the End of Days. The son fiercely unravels his parents’ world by removing some pages from a Stephen King novel and other popular books. How he manages this is too fiendishly fun and brilliant to reveal here.

What’s engaging, too, in this short novel is that everywhere, with quick deft strokes, Tolkin takes his characters the extra distance, to reveal both inner life and irony. For example, in bed after Tom finally selects the object of his obsession, his wife, Rosalie, says, "You’re finally relaxing." To which he responds, "Yes. It always takes me a while. I’m sorry." Rosalie continues, "That’s why vacations last a few weeks. You work hard, you need a lot of time to find yourself."

Like many of us, Rosalie sees the world the way she needs it to be. "Under Radar" seems to refer to that part of our lives that are lived under our view, or awareness.

A long story told to Tom by a condemned prisoner fills the prison pages of the novel. It is detailed, elegantly erotic — and I don’t have a clue what it’s about. Which I believe is part of the point, as is the message in a famous Jewish story that Tolkin quotes later in the novel: it’s the telling and the passing on that matters. It reminds me of "The Tell" in the "Road Warrior" films, where post-apocalyptic children in search of their promised rescuer completely mangle their generation’s oral history. The truth is not there, however, but in the telling.

In the end, Tom passes this prison story on. Rosalie says when she hears it, "I don’t expect that any of us fully understand your story, but I don’t think we have to, right away." Tom responds, "No, it takes time." This is the only dialogue between them here, and it says a lot.

The finale avoids tidy clichés. Tom uses his prison knowledge and a sizable sacrifice to reconstitute his world with his family, and achieves something significant both for them and for himself. This unexpected forfeiture, which leaves his continued life with them richer, is what makes this novel so original and moving.