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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Book Reviews

Moon Shadows

Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon by Dean Bakopoulos. Harcourt, New York, 2005, 273 pages, $23.


Courtesy of Harcourt Trade Publishers

Like Jeffrey Eugenides’s first book, The Virgin Suicides, Dean Bakopoulos’s debut novel is set in the Detroit area, is sometimes narrated by a male “we,” and is about loss and longing. In Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon, it’s fathers, rather than daughters, who create an epidemic of disappearance, abandoning their ethnic families in the summer of 1991. One father leaves a note saying he’s “going to the moon” (p. 5). Other fathers take up the phrase and take off with even less explanation, imposing on their sons an aching ambivalence partly conveyed by the title. Maybe the older men have blasted out to a world less complicated and better paying than the decaying suburb they’ve fled. Maybe they’ve died in that other world, punished for forcing wives and children to work second jobs at the mall.

Michael Smolij is 16 when his recently unemployed father drives off in the family Oldsmobile, leaving behind his music-teaching wife Eva, Michael, and Kolya, age nine. Now 30, Michael narrates his family’s story and speaks in Eugenides’s first-person plural for two dozen male friends: “We imagined the climate of the moon to be temperate, and we imagined our fathers singing songs in praise of the life they had there. We sensed that there was music on the moon” (p. 24). Sometimes Michael even shifts into second-person plural to address the long-gone fathers: “We remembered when you gave us dollar bills or watched baseball games with us or let us hold the garbage bag open while you raked in the grass clippings. We had these memories of you: What memories did you have of us?” (p. 40)

The large cluster of mysterious paternal departures and Michael’s departures from the first-person singular, along with Michael’s belief that he, too, has lifted a few feet off the ground, give the novel a semi-mythical quality that promises to distinguish it from the conventional coming-of-age story that, fully aged, I have read in sufficient numbers to last me until my own departure from this planet. Unfortunately, Bakopoulos is more interested in how Roman Smolij’s desertion affected Michael than in why Roman and all those other fathers vanished.

One immediate effect is the penis gap in the Maple Rock neighborhood. Michael soon loses his virginity with an abandoned wife, has sex with an abandoned daughter, conducts a torrid affair with another deserted woman, and eventually marries the mother of a fatherless child. So, like an unleashed member of Freud’s primal horde, Michael is doing okay while the pops are away.

Without a male model of hard work and success, though, Michael flounders during his senior year in high school, drinks beer with the school janitor, drinks more at the bar the fathers used to frequent, gets in fights, commits some petty crimes, and generally makes himself into a person who either can’t find the will to leave Maple Rock or can’t imagine where he could go beyond Ann Arbor for keg parties. Gradually, Michael accepts unwanted responsibilities (such as protecting his hyperactive, Ritalined brother) and tries to invent a future for himself by attending a community college. Michael is depressed but not pathologically self-pitying. He sympathetically observes other victims of abandonment: his cousin Nick, who becomes a labor activist before impregnating and marrying his girlfriend, and their friend Tom, who goes to alcohol rehab before getting married and having kids.

Michael is less engaging about his mother, saintly in her support of him and perhaps secretly resented for somehow driving away her husband. After several loser boyfriends, Eva marries a defrocked priest, who abandons his vocation for real-estate development and moves her and Kolya to a larger house in a more affluent suburb. Michael inherits the family homestead and a car. Though luckier in love and money than some friends, Michael can’t shake his sense of impermanence, his fear of caring for others, and his occasional desire to drift moonward. Bakopoulos doggedly traces these emotional consequences of desertion, but they are largely predictable and don’t require the mass exodus, which increasingly seems a narrative hook.

As a Telemachian teenager, Michael decides he will be a writer but struggles with The Odyssey. When he gets to college, his creative-writing professor trashes Michael’s first two short stories: one has the “boring” subject matter of drunks, the other has “flat and clichéd female characters” (p. 171). But Michael persists, finds The Great Gatsby inspiring, works in a bookstore, recommends Crime and Punishment to customers, and hopes to call forth that old “Hemingway magic” (p. 159). At 26, Michael gets a job writing brief news stories for a 24-hour-news radio station, and then is promoted to covering the kind of crimes Hemingway reported in Kansas City and put into In Our Time. The writing of Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon proves Michael’s professor half-wrong. The fatherless drunks are still boring, but Bakopoulos manages to give Michael’s lovers some individuality along with anything but flat breasts. Although known as “Mr. Clean” (p. 215) for his radio copy, Michael’s prose here could benefit from some scrubbing and editing: he uses “diffused” for “defused,” has problems with improbabilities (a 245-pound high-school halfback, a dog seeking a warm bed on a hot night), and commits pedestrian sentences such as, “I still have a tendency to sit back and wait out the bad things that try and take over my life” (p. 73).

Papa Hemingway and his father went to the moon by shooting themselves in the head, so there’s more than one ghost lingering around this novel. But what about those real 1991 fathers? Michael and his friends wonder if and when they’ll return. I’m still wondering why they left. They’re mostly sons of first-generation immigrants, “Poles, Ukrainians, Greeks, Italians, and other ethnic groups that came from Europe after the Second World War” (p. 6). Many of the men attended the Ukrainian Catholic church and even sang in the choir. Some suffered from downsizing and the export of jobs, but not all. The moon-journey metaphor prevents their sons, including Michael, from thinking clearly about the particular and shared reasons their fathers left. He remembers scattered images of his father, some of which reveal marital problems, but Michael never analyzes why Roman departed. Nowhere in the novel do Michael and his mother talk about Roman.

Michael states near the end of the book that the fathers “were men who failed at something in my eyes, and failure is not something we dwell on in the Midwest, in Maple Rock” (p. 243). Perhaps Bakopoulos recognizes how Michael’s refusal to think limits his life, but the author does little to remedy the limitations of his narration. The fathers of Michael’s friends are sketchier than Roman. Michael says he “didn’t even know if my father and his friends had been Republicans or Democrats” (p. 152). Not even Fitzgerald’s star-struck Nick Carraway was that incurious and imperceptive. Hemingway’s iceberg method of writing left seven-eighths implied. Bakopoulos’s radio-news method—perhaps 60 four- or five-page scenes covering more than a decade—leaves too much unsaid and unimplied and apparently unthought.

In his jacket photo, Bakopoulos appears to be man of 30 or so. Perhaps he will go on to write a novel like Eugenides’s Middlesex. Though I’m not an admirer of that book, it does have the dense observation and generational causality and sociosexual dynamics lacking in this first novel. Bakopoulos has Michael make fun of a character who is three-quarters Ukrainian but has a Polish name, and Bakopoulos dedicates his book to his grandfather, Gregory Smolij. So I doubt that Bakopoulos is the next great Greek American hope. Some of the books he has Michael read include Walden and Moby-Dick. If Bakopoulos will turn to them, rather than Fitzgerald and Hemingway, as models of exact scrutiny and expansive creation, he might well write something closer to the mythic novel than Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon first appears to be. Or if not a mythic than an ethnic epic, a book that uses his knowledge of Ukrainians and others to rigorously investigate why some children of immigrants (from Greece or any other Christian country) choose dereliction after assimilation, why faith in heaven can’t hold men back from the dead planet. Or why faith in transcendence allows fathers to leave—if they are, indeed, leaving ethnic communities in greater numbers than WASP neighborhoods. This primal “fact” of the novel is counter-intuitive to me and, without fictional “evidence,” fails to create the resonance Bakopoulos desires.

There is both a minute and mythic story set in Michigan already written about these themes: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Like Bakopoulos’s fathers, Morrison’s Solomon flies away and leaves women and children below. Instead of all those white male writers that Bakopoulos refers to, maybe he should have looked to moon-influenced Others, who have much to teach him about the complexities of being earthbound.

Tom LeClair’s novel, Passing On, was published last year by greekworks.com, which will release The Liquidators this winter.
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