Clancy Martin is associate professor and chair of philosophy at the University of Missouri in Kansas City and has just published his first novel, How to Sell. His book Love, Lies and Marriage is forthcoming from Farrar Straus & Giroux; and his essays and fiction have appeared or are appearing in Harper's, The London Review of Books, The New York Times, NOON, McSweeney's and other popular and academic publications. Clancy is presently working on his second novel, and on a memoir that is being serialized in NOON. Below he discusses Deb Olin Unferth's Vacation.
Clancy Martin on Vacation by Deb Olin Unferth
Hiking up a volcano, with my three-year-old in a pack on my back, and my wife beside me with the one-year-old, on a steep grade, green ravines on either side of the narrow road, the howler monkeys hooting dully across the canyons, and the rain started. At first it was refreshing. The heat in Nicaragua is not the temperature - it was in the nineties, probably - but the blanket of still, wet air: the jungle is a steam room. Then the rain rained down like it can in the tropics. It was like waves rather than streams or sheets. We looked nervously at the girls, but they were laughing, with their hands in the air. The road began to fill with water. We were climbing up what was becoming a streambed, I realized, that could quickly turn into a river. 'Turn around,' I shouted to my wife. She couldn't hear me, so I took her by the arm and pointed down the mountain. She nodded, relieved, and we began our slow steps down. You couldn't see your feet and each step was insecure. We dared not slip, with the girls on our backs. I wondered if we should slide on our asses. But the water was getting high for that. And once we began to slide, we could slide right off. My family, flood away. I thought, we should climb a tree and wait for it to pass; rain this heavy can't last more than an hour. That's all we can do. Climb up to safety with the monkeys.
We were in Nicaragua thanks to Deb Olin Unferth's brilliant, disorienting, life-changing (life-threatening!) novel Vacation. It is one of those dangerous books that you should only read if you are sure on your feet. Otherwise it may slip the road away from beneath you. You can only hope you are like that plate on the fully set table when she yanks the tablecloth away with a gigantic flourish, spinning a bit but still in place. We were retracing the steps of the hero of Deb's novel, across the country of Nicaragua. We didn't bother with his misadventures in Manhattan and upstate New York; those are the deliberately anti-lyrical movements of the hero, and it was romance we were after, the delirious romance Unferth offers in this novel, perhaps the finest piece of lyricism American literature has produced in the past 10 or 20 years. Unferth is writing in the tradition of the nouveau roman, like Sarraute, Simon, Duras and Robbe-Grillet, but giving that form of extraordinary psychological interiority a still newer, distinctly American voice. As with Sarraute's The Golden Fruits, you don't read Vacation so much as fall in love with it. So, like a fool for love, I had dragged my poor family down to this gorgeous, dismal, dangerous and magnificent country to see what her hero saw and suffered. We did not make it all the way to Corn Island, where he confronts his terrible, inevitable fate, but after the volcano the thought of riding in that boat for hours through the waves - across a sea that, with your children on the deck, seems miles deeper - was too much for me and my wife. With my luck, we'd hit a worse typhoon than Myers.
Read it: it's like that storm that tried to wash us all into the ravine. There are those books, usually short as a tropical cloudburst, but one so strong you feel you have to hold your breath the whole time, just to get through it.
In Granada, on those side-walks raised four feet above the streets - the rains, the floodwater - we sat in a café, under cover, though the rain was much lighter now, and I looked at the pink-and-brown faces of my wife and daughters, their hands full of food and their hair wet, and thought about Myers, and why he came to Nicaragua alone, heartbroken, looking for the solace of the friend who had (he mistakenly supposed) betrayed him, who could explain why he had lost love. Myers' lesson is not to live alone, I thought. I thought about that scene from Lynch's Wild at Heart, another great piece of American lyricism - Lynch has a heavy debt to the nouveau roman, and Unferth has a debt to David Lynch - when the Good Witch comes to Sailor at the end of the movie, after he's just had the snot beaten out of him by a gang of thugs near the railroad tracks, and advises him from her pink cloud: 'Don't give up on love, Sailor. Don't give up on love.' That's why Myers came to Nicaragua, I thought. That's why we all wander the way we do. He didn't want to give up on love. I moved my wet one-year-old to my lap, and fed her her rice and beans with a spoon, the way she liked me to do. My wife's eyes were shining.