‘Silver Lake’ by Peter Gadol
Author: Drewey Wayne Gunn
May 18, 2010
There is much that is dark in this book: both psychic darkness within the characters and actual physical darkness since several of the key scenes take place at night. But the impression that I carry with me about Silver Lake, nearly two months after I read it, is one of luminosity. The novel opens:
And then it was autumn again, and Saturdays they would wake early when the first clean light came up over the oak and fir at the top of the ridge and eased its way down across their glass house and overgrown slope, down to the pitched yards and shingled cottages along the street below their street, down across timber and brush and fallen limbs, across the boulevard all the way to the patient lake, where it would linger on the water, an ancient and forgiving light by noon.
The final image of the lake, an epiphany, is also bathed in forgiving light. For a long moment after I finished the novel, I held the volume open, spellbound by the assuredness with which the author had brought everything fittingly to a conclusion that is also a beginning. And then I returned to the opening paragraph, startled into awareness of how carefully chosen each word is: autumn, oak and fir, glass house, overgrown, pitched, fallen limbs, patient…. The reader is in the hands of a master of language who lets us relish his words at a slow and stately pace.
We are in Silver Lake, part of greater Los Angeles. The time is now. Robbie Voight and Carlo Stein have for twenty years been partners in a faltering architectural business mostly dedicated to renovations of existing properties, and partners in what comes to be revealed as a faltering relationship. Perhaps it is symbolic that they chose not to renovate their own home when they bought it. The daily routine of their existence has diminished the glow: in more than one way “their way of life [is] in jeopardy.”
At this crucial moment it is fated that there comes into their home a trickster figure to test them to the core. A younger man, Tom Field is an artist, a drifter, a sexual adventurer, someone whose own family sees as being “dramatic.” Carlo encounters him first, at the police station before the novel opens, as a result of being mugged and having his car wrecked, an incident that Carlo shields Robbie from. The second encounter, with both men, may or may not be accidental. No matter, it leads to Tom’s committing what I can only describe as a bizarre kind of acte gratuit. As a result Robbie and Carlo’s life changes forever as each discovers there are many forms of adultery other than the sexual.
Other fateful encounters occur. Gabriel, the teenager who used to live next door before the breakup of his parents’ marriage, shows up again. He may be partly behind the petty vandalism the two suffer as a result of Tom’s act. Carlo hires Gabriel to help build a fountain at the bottom of their yard, with an unexpected outcome. Carlo’s father, a Jewish survivor of European history, pays a visit. Robbie, who has become obsessed with contacting the people in the address book Tom left behind, begins a relationship with one of Tom’s former lovers. The detective on the case will not leave them alone even though the case is closed. And yet, with all these people around them, Carlo and Robbie are alone.
For lies and loss and loneliness have now entered their life. Things not said or done can be as deadly as outright untruths: an “erosion of trust.” After another near-disastrous nocturnal incident, “the two men remained far apart, at opposite ends of the house,” each lost in his individual pain. And yet … and yet — the author affirms — “Nobody should be alone in the world.” Even loss can lead to something found: “Loss in one’s life the way loss had entered their lives made one forever aware that for every plot, there was always a ghost plot, the same story told another way.”
I connected viscerally to this novel like to no other in a long time. Its emotional authenticity lingers in my mind after the actual events that produced those emotions have faded. My copy contains one underlined passage after another. Indulge me one last quotation: “If only he could subscribe to something alongside hard science, Carlo thought, a complementary unempirical system that made working sense of the proofless: against what was known, faith in the balance. To find a place for skepticism or doubt or cosmic ambivalence was a yearning as fast-spun, unexpected, and perplexing as any Carlo had suffered that autumn, and for one brief moment, the mere prospect of belief and, perhaps more significantly, the prospect of commune with others holding belief, left him light.”
Tragedy is for the young, not the old. After one reaches a certain age, one wants not death but redemption. What is the point of loss and suffering if they lead only to annihilation? This is Gadol’s sixth novel, his first in nine years. The wait has been worth it for the affirmative vision he offers the reader that two humans can reconnect and move on, scarred but wiser.