Rooting for a promising first Montana novel

the-actorThe Actor, by Beth Hunter McHugh, Riverbend Publishing, 2015. 228 pages, $22.95.

About halfway through “The Actor,” I quit reading the novel for pleasure and started rooting for it.

Not that Beth Hunter McHugh’s debut novel needs my cheerleading. The book won Riverbend Publishing’s inaugural Meadowlark Award last year. It won the Best First Book Award at the High Plains Book Awards this year.

Just in her early 30s, McHugh is a 2002 graduate of Helena High School. She has a master of fine arts from the University of Montana and teaches English at Hamilton High School.

Her first novel has won high praise from formidable Montana writers, including Debra Magpie Earling, author of the haunting “Perma Red,” and Deidre McNamer, author of “Rima in the Weeds,” a book I admired, and of “Red Rover,” which I admired even more and sometimes teach in composition courses.

So my faint praise and rooting scarcely need to register. But I couldn’t shake the feeling as I read that this gossamer thread of a tale might somewhere along the way vanish altogether, and I wanted to cling to it.

The novel is set in 1967, well before McHugh was born, in an unnamed Montana university town. The story is told through the voice of a 13-year-old girl who lives in the “nice house” with her parents and 11-year-old sister.

The mother teaches law at the university, and the father teaches theater there. The girls are often left to their own devices, and they are good company. Grace, the narrator, is a keen and sympathetic observer of their small lives, and her sister, Franny, is funny, adventurous and sometimes reckless.

Although Grace keeps referring to the “nice house,” it’s clear that not all is nice. The parents often drink too early and too long, and they lead bohemian lives disconnected from each other and from their children.

The father especially seems to spend more and more time with his theater students and less and less time with his family. Finally, one of the student actors, Ivan, moves into the “nice house,” and the father and Ivan both soon move out, all the way to New York City.

This seems to set the stage for some sort of late-chapter dramatic showdown, but that isn’t exactly what happens. Instead, mom and the kids leave the “nice house” for a place in the country. Mom loses herself in gardening and home repairs. The kids make new friends, have spats, flirt with trouble. When the dramatic showdown comes, it isn’t at all what you might have expected. The thin thread holds.

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McHugh is a fine writer. I could quote dozens of examples to illustrate the point. But sometimes the writing seems weakest when she strives for her biggest effects, as in this Christmas description: “At night the little golden bulbs on the tree glinted in the occasional flicker of dying fire that could be seen through a slim gap on one side of the stove hatch, or in the light coming through cracks in the curtains, that light a blue, seeping light that had everything to do with cold so sharp that even the fog that had stilled itself over the ground could find no reason to move.”

It isn’t bad writing; no one who has taught freshman comp could think so. But somehow it all seems a bit much—so many light sources are packed into a single overwrought sentence that the eye finds no place to rest, unlike the fog, which finds no place to go.

Or this, from a few pages earlier: “The ground seemed to freeze beneath our feet as we walked, the cold falling down like a cupped palm from the sky, closing in and making us giddy, almost frightened, aware of some large change in weather coming.” It almost would be better if it were not so good: the promising start, then the awkward simile, the way that “giddy” clangs on the ear, the tacked-on exposition at the end.

Those are petty complaints, and they would ring even pettier if such sentences were not the novel’s climactic high point. The plot line, such as it is, never goes anywhere much—that’s a lie, mostly, to spare giving the ending away, but it’s a little white lie. Tightly plotted, this isn’t.

McHugh’s gift for dialog and characterization compensate but also isn’t fully satisfying. Interesting new characters butt into the story, leave indelible marks, then butt out again, like beggars working the street. Threads of side plots emerge, then fade.

Even a handful of typos and small errors slip past the editors, none of consequence but of enough cumulative effect to awaken the bad cop grammar nerd that lurks inside some of us.

But yet, but yet, there is much to admire here. Grace and Franny live lives that will strike a chord with anyone who has been a child. Their adventures create a sense of place that, if it doesn’t feel much like Missoula, certainly does feel like Montana. Just picking it up now, reading a random page here and there, I find myself drawn back into their circumscribed but rich world.

Pretty soon, I once again found myself rooting on every page.

Editor’s noteWe’ll be running some more reviews in the next week or so, thinking there’s no better time to be talking about books than in the weeks before Christmas, especially when the weather makes all of us want to stay inside.

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