by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop; New York, Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, 2006, 304 pages, $23.95
Dr. Fullerton is a postdoctoral fellow in health care policy at Harvard Medical School, Boston.
In Fireworks, protagonist Hollis Clayton introduces a central theme when he writes to his wife, "Don't non-stories become stories in the telling?" In her debut novel, Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop provides a nonstory by rejecting a traditional plotline in favor of a character sketch of a summer in the life of Hollis Clayton. In doing so, she vividly portrays the desolate and contradictory world of a burgeoning alcoholic.
Through flashbacks, Hollis describes a sympathetic yet revealing past. His mother left him and his father for a commune when he was eight. His childhood was filled with fantasy but also with a father who clearly loved and supported Hollis while missing his wife deeply. Hollis shows early signs of his avoidance when he reveals the story of his grandfather's funeral. "When my grandfather died, I told everyone he'd been killed by Aborigines while he was berry-picking in Africa." During the funeral itself, he kills his grandmother's dog by leaving it locked in a car, an act for which he never admits his guilt and allows blame to fall on his demented grandmother.
Hollis meets his wife when he is pretending to be a paramedic. The romanticism of their ritual "nickel drives" on rainy days is belied by Hollis's disappointment when he discovers it was his wife's childhood tradition with her father. Finally, he reveals the tragic death of his four-year-old son who was killed by a car when Hollis left him unattended on a tricycle.
These flashbacks are interspersed with Hollis's accounts of his isolated, alcohol-laden present, where he reveals a self-indulgent and irresponsible life. His mistress leaves him after a drunken escapade with fireworks. His wife has decamped to her sister's to reevaluate their marriage. He spends his aimless days spying on his neighbors' children, obsessing about the whereabouts of a missing person on a billboard, writing letters to his wife that he never sends, befriending a dog, and visiting his local bar. He sabotages his writing career by failing to meet his prospective publishers for dinner, driving instead to his "special" beach where he hopes his wife will come for their anniversary.
Winthrop portrays Hollis's life deftly and with compassion. In her writing, his frank irresponsibility appears mildly endearing while slowly costing him his friends and livelihood. The one-dimensional supporting characters accurately portray his self-absorption, and the ruthless constancy of his denial and avoidance leaves one yearning for some miniscule growth. With Fireworks, Winthrop has provided us with a well-written character portrayal of an emotionally lost man.