Back in August of 2010, I reviewed Lisa Gitlin’s debut novel, I Came Out for This?, which I liked a great deal. So, I was at the front of the line when I heard Bywater was about to release her second book, Postcards from the Canyon, and I must say I was not disappointed. Eight years is a long time to wait, but it’s done nothing to dull Gitlin’s talents.
Our protag, Joanna Jacobs, is a writer whose latest novel about 9/11 has been rejected soundly by a number of publishers. As if this wasn’t disappointment enough, she also has to deal with the recent death of her mother. As authors often do, she tries to write through her grief by setting down an account of her childhood in 1960’s Cleveland. Her anxiousness also manifests itself in a threatening call to a conservative Congresswoman on a talk show, causing a visit from the FBI. Not to mention the juvenile delinquents from upstairs who have drilled a hole into her closet and invaded her apartment.
Gitlin’s voice in both the flashback childhood segments as well as the adult present story is every bit as sharp and observant as in her first book. And Joanna is a character with great aplomb. Nothing seems to faze her. Her childhood encounter with a pair of lesbians on her block (The Blobs), her time as a pyromaniac and her resulting stay in a mental institution, her rage-filled father, her brushes with racial prejudice and riots in Hough–all of this is handled with the dispassion and doesn’t-this-happen-to-everyone? attitude I often see in children. Her adult self deals with just as much–career failure, lesbian drama, death, homelessness–but carries over much of that dispassion. That, however, doesn’t mean she can’t be outraged, as when the juvenile delinquents invade her apartment:
Finally, I had the presence of mind to look in the closet and there was a huge hole in the ceiling! Those crazy kids had apparently chainsawed a hole in the floor of the Chinese people’s closet in order to obtain access to my apartment! Jesus Christ, I cannot believe they had the nerve to do this! I just kept standing there like a dope. I heard a guy talking in Chinese through the hole in the closet. I looked over at the boys and saw them all poking on their phones except for the Jewish kid, who was sitting next to the good-looking kid banging his head against the back of the sofa. I realized I had to do something, so I shut the closet door and walked over to the seating area and planted myself in the middle of the rug like an old maid at a beer party. “What are you people doing in here?” I yelled.
But she doesn’t call the cops. She befriends them, looking forward to their daily arrival and becoming somewhat involved in the lives. Like you do with teenagers who invade your living space, right? This does not go unnoticed by her childhood friends, who have remained in touch as they became adults, attempting to steer her on a somewhat more conventional path. It doesn’t work.
If I have a complaint, it’s that the ending feels a bit rushed in comparison to the way she rolls out the rest of the story. Dealing with her mother’s effects and closing up the house is relegated to only one chapter, but all loose ends are tied up with nothing left to question. And that caveat is a minor one you may disagree with.
In short, Gitlin has created a funny, inspiring character who succeeds in spite of herself in a warm, involving book. Postcards from the Canyon is mail you won’t want to miss.
© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler