The Tollman children—spitfire Phil, the eldest; musing Stephen, his shadow; charming but doomed Margie; and stuttering Myron—adore their lovely, competent mother and cannot forgive their lackluster father for allowing her to go blind. So destitute are they at the worst of the Great Depression that they end up living in a tent outside Cleveland's city limits, where life is as brutal and sporadically transcendent as the moody Midwest's meteorologic extremes. Assured and purposeful, first-time novelist Coulson infuses each surprising and evocative moment with great feeling and mythic resonance as he leapfrogs forward in time, subtly tracing the impact of the Second World War, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War on his emotionally damaged characters. Shifting between Cleveland and Detroit, and among several points of view, including that of Katherine, a brilliant pianist with whom both Phil and Stephen fall madly in love, Coulson writes with surpassing clarity and dignity about grief, anger, sexual passion, the need for art, brotherly love, and the resilience of good women, creating a somberly beautiful family saga.
Loss saturates Joseph Coulson’s new novel, The Vanishing Moon. This chronicle of three generations of a Midwestern working-class family opens in the Depression, with the Tollmans having had to leave their home in Cleveland and stay in a tent on the outskirts of town, and closes in the era of Nixon and Vietnam, with the sundering of brothers Stephen and Phil Tollman.
A tale punctuated by vanishing loved ones, desires and possibilities could become drearily repetitious, but Coulson’s richly-textured narrative abounds in passion and wonder. Loss may be catastrophic, but for Coulson it is never final. His real subject is not loss but the art of losing, the infinitely varied ways in which people try to live on in the wake of loss.
The Vanishing Moon offers a deliberately different portrayal of American working-class life. No strikes, no scenes of factory drudgery or tyrannical bosses, no urban slums: Instead, the focus is on familial relations, which Coulson develops with such complexity and density that the Tollmans are never reduced to symbolic pawns of an unjust system.
This unconventional emphasis is apparent in the novel’s opening. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath may have led us to expect that we know what it’s like to be forced out of your home during the Depression, but nothing I have read prepared me for Coulson’s patient reimagining of the Tollmans’ life. Told in the voice of younger brother Stephen, growing up in a tent near the Chagrin River (no joke!) appears surprisingly similar to growing up elsewhere. There are adventures in the woods, odd jobs, snow angels, a crush on a grade school teacher, fiery brother Phil’s terrible revenge on the kids who tormented their speech-impaired little brother Myron, and a creepy old guy who lives in a shack near the river. Stephen’s recollection of winter illustrates the larger balance that Coulson strikes:
We ate summer vegetables and fruit that Mother canned in the fall, and we froze fish and venison, gifts from the Johnson farm, in a metal can outside the tent. Snow in a bucket kept milk and cheese cold. Sometimes, when the temperature rose just above freezing, the tent was almost cozy, except that my hands were never warm.
Coulson is particularly interested in the spiritual and emotional losses that follow from material deprivation. Mother’s blindness, Myron’s speech impediment and Phil’s eventual deafness correspond to a larger pattern of constricted possibility. Loss makes and unmakes each of Moon’s large cast of absorbing characters. The feckless father’s abandonment strengthens the bond between Stephen and Phil, the remaining men of the family, for instance, but it also sharpens their disagreements. Phil hates and dismisses the father, while Stephen lives in anticipation of his return. Some of Stephen’s most appealing traits are reinforced in reaction to such losses: He is the one who remembers, who cares, who makes an effort to maintain family ties as an adult.
At the same time, this posture proves debilitating. He loses his true love Katherine to his more intense brother Phil, one feels, because he has chosen to wait and remember he is ill-equipped to pursue his own desires in the present. He then waits for Katherine long after, to much the same effect.
At its best, The Vanishing Moon works by re-creation, taking a set of abstractly familiar stories and telling them with such vividness and emotional torque that they become new again. The entire second section, told by Katherine, a pianist who moves in communist circles but follows only the promptings of her heart, is of this order. Katherine’s electric intelligence is fascinating in its own right, and because she is in many respects Stephen’s opposite, her perceptions of the Tollmans consistently expose new facets.
I found the third section, told by Phil’s teenage son James in the Detroit of the 1960s and ’70s, authentic but not as fresh. The period references to rock bands and draft resistance and race riots are more familiar; more importantly, James resembles his decent, sensitive Uncle Stephen in temperament, and Phil’s story comes to dominate the whole. Phil’s decline into hardhearted fury, paranoia and alcoholism is convincing, but too much like a slow-motion train wreck to elicit much more than pity and, I suspect, too narrow to carry Coulson’s more ambitious commentary on this phase of U.S. history. The return of Stephen to narrate the final section is refreshing, not because the Tollmans’ problems are solved or Stephen’s scars are healed, but because he has achieved a rare kind of integrity, “ruined but unvanquished.”
Elizabeth Bishop wrote: “The art of losing’s not too hard to master.” Coulson’s novel is alive to the ironies of this promise. The Tollmans get entirely too much practice in the art, and their mastery sometimes exacerbates their pain. The Vanishing Moon saves their stories, in mourning and in celebration, with an art of remarkable poignancy.
Doug Payne teaches English at USD.