NOVEMBER 21, 2016
DO YOU KNOW the song “The Talking Drum” by King Crimson? It was never very popular and is now pretty old, but I bring it up because it does a neat and specific thing. It starts very quietly and proceeds, over the course of seven and a half hair-raising minutes, to get louder, and louder. A sort of psychosonic endurance test that’s both unpleasant and a lot of fun. All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, the new novel by author Bryn Greenwood, is kind of like that.
A provocation beats at the heart of this book. At first it is faint. We start somewhere out in the United States, at the epidermal extremity of the story. Tulsa is mentioned, and Wichita. All is well, then somebody starts to tell us about her cousin. Okay, a family tale. Things are going to get sordid. We know this. If we read the back of the book we already know why. We know it will involve drugs, poverty, and backwoods brokenness. Most importantly, we know it will involve an age-inappropriate relationship between a young girl and a much older, though still young man. While an age-inappropriate relationship of this sort is by no means a novel topic, it is an unfailingly controversial one and still carries considerable risk. That risk is multiplied when the relationship is portrayed, as it is in this novel, in a singularly sympathetic light.
At first, the relationship in All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is of a courtly, platonic vintage. It is, in fact, at its early stages, entirely innocent. The parties involved, eight-year-old Wayvonna Quinn (Wavy) and 18-year-old Jesse Joe Kellen, make one another’s acquaintance when the latter crashes his motorcycle outside the former’s abode. Kellen, a hulking man-child who works as a mechanic/gopher for Wavy’s meth-dealing father Liam, is saved by the girl’s intervention; and Wavy, who is forced by neglect to become wise and capable beyond her years, finds an adult who both respects her as an independent being and cares enough to see her for the child she is. When Kellen discovers that Wavy spends most of her time at home alone, looking after the house and her toddler brother Donal through Liam’s long absences and her mother’s perpetual intoxication, he makes it a point to help out as often and in any way he can: cleaning, buying groceries, driving Wavy to school, and generally looking out for the Quinn kids’ well-being.
All I was thinking as I rode back out there, was that I could make things a little better for her. In a stranger’s house, it was easy to see what needed doing. I went in there figuring I’d just wash the dishes, but then I couldn’t leave the baby crying in dirty pants. It’s not my favorite thing, but I can change a diaper.
For a moment everything is hunky-dory and nothing could possibly go wrong, except that of course it will.
From the very start, Wavy and Kellen share a fascination for one another. There’s a genuine sweetness in the way that the two outcasts come to find a solace, steadiness, and peace in each other’s company that otherwise evades them in their chaotic and dangerous lives. Kellen’s own father was an abusive alcoholic and he spent much of his childhood fearing for he and his mother’s lives until he grew large and bold enough to fight back. In Wavy, Kellen sees both his own juvenile fear and his mother’s long-suffering bravery reflected back. But there is something else about her for him, too, an instinctual, almost supernatural appeal; when she discovers him after his accident, in his addled state, he mistakes her for a fairy. The two complement one another. Kellen is big and blunt, a classic gentle giant but with enough muscle and menace to provide a real deterrent to anyone who might think to pick a fight, while the tiny Wavy is the silent brains of the pair — near feral in the eyes of her relatives and teachers but whip smart by both birth and necessity, always calculating and always in command. A sort of symbiosis is achieved, but as Wavy enters puberty, the trend line forges toward an intimacy neither would seem to have expected. “In two weeks, school would be over for the summer, and Kellen wouldn’t have a reason to come to the house, except that he liked to eat. If I cooked, he might keep coming to sit at the table with me and let me watch him eat.” The reader, on the other hand, is wiser.
The tale is not a subtle one, but there is power in the telling and something delightful in the dreadful inevitability of the way it unfolds. Little by little, the relationship between Wavy and Kellen evolves from a pragmatic if fond alliance to something both more tender and more fraught. As Wavy’s homelife deteriorates, Kellen increasingly comes to view the Quinn children as his primary responsibility. If not him, he wonders, who else? Simultaneously distrustful of authority and afraid to endanger the modest livelihood his employment with Wavy’s father provides, Kellen transitions from a kind of watchful big brother into a surrogate parent. Wavy, meanwhile, develops a crush: “I watched stars with Kellen in the meadow. […] I took care of Kellen when he was tired. While he was asleep I kissed him. First on his cheek, then on his prickly sideburns. Then on his mouth, which wasn’t prickly at all.”
The crush, as preadolescent crushes tend to be, is at first sweet and awkward, gentle and chaste. Wavy is not used to giving or receiving affection and it’s clear she doesn’t quite know what her new feelings mean, even as she finds herself increasingly in their possession. She thinks about Kellen constantly and is jealous when she sees him talking to women. Kellen for his part remains conveniently oblivious of the significance he’s taken on in Wavy’s heart and of the romantic sheen he unwittingly buffs with every gruffly gallant act. Even so, it is clear he likes the attention.
As the story wends on, the threat of things turning tawdry is slowly amplified. Wavy, her crush only deepening as the years go by, grows bolder and Kellen eventually begins to realize where things are headed. Though somewhat nonplussed, he chooses — and here’s the detail that the whole book really ends up hinging on — not to do anything about it. It raises the question, of course, of what ought to be done in such a situation. Create distance? Sit down and have an honest chat? Yes, those would probably be the responsible choices. And initially, Kellen does consider them, or at least his version of them. He even gives those approaches a shot to the extent that he’s capable. But you get the impression that he never tries too hard. Part of the problem, of course, is that, all else aside, Wavy really needs him. But, more significantly, and what Greenwood is skillfully able to ultimately reveal is the fact that, when he’s honest with himself, Kellen finds that he really needs Wavy, too. He needs to be needed, and basking in its glow for the first time in his life, he finds he loves being loved. Still, there is a window of opportunity for Kellen to extricate himself from the tangle and a part of him knows that he should take it. That window is so wide that even Kellen would have no problem fitting through. Instead, he shuts it himself by buying Wavy a ring. The dull roar becomes a keening howl.
It is hard to know exactly what to feel about what takes place in All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. In some ways it seems to wear its stance, on what could otherwise be a pleasurably vexing ethical conundrum for its audience to consider, too plainly to encourage actual debate — debate, the book seems, above almost all else, designed to provoke. It is the kind of book that demands by its very structure the reader take a stance, with various secondary characters standing in for imagined litigants in the court of popular opinion in the generously allocated point-of-view chapters. As a storytelling strategy it’s not a bad idea to let some air and perspective into what otherwise might be too claustrophobic a tale of forbidden love to curry the kind of support Greenwood seems to want us to have for her heroes — but it fails somewhat in execution. Whereas Kellen and Wavy’s accounts of themselves are rich and complex, those outside their self-enclosed dramatic dyad lack the same level of nuance, flattening what otherwise could have been illuminating dimensions, and undermining the credibility of whatever critiques of the novel’s central relationship are offered up.
Even as the rubicon is crossed and the already precariously taut emotional entanglement between Wavy and Kellen explodes into barely legal sexual exploration, everything that occurs is so couched in the inevitable logic of this uniquely asymmetric pairing that it’s hard to be too surprised or, weirdly, too judgmental — even in the moments when Kellen’s dopey, reluctant loverboy routine wears a little thin. On the one hand, Greenwood deserves a lot of credit for being able to pull this off and keep both characters so likable and so relatable, on the other, I wish I had been given more opportunities to struggle with what was bound to happen before I was won over. Ultimately, there is little ambiguity in what takes place between Wayvonna Quinn and Jesse Joe Kellen, and that may be at the heart of the problem. For all their apparent flaws, both characters are so pure in their intentions toward one another that whatever transgressions they commit are easily redeemed.