A Cold Spring

by Edra Ziesk

Published by Algonquin Books

304 pages, 2002


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Warm at Heart

Reviewed by David Abrams

 

I don't know how many people live in Amity, Vermont. Two hundred? Two thousand? But I do know the ones I met on the pages of Edra Ziesk's novel A Cold Spring are indelibly marked on my brain. The paper-and-ink residents of these 275 pages are as real as anyone you'd find tramping around the woods tapping syrup from trees or aimlessly driving the main drag on a slow Saturday night. Put your nose close to the page and you can practically smell the wood smoke that clings to their clothes. You'll probably also smell the rancid sweat of small-town restlessness.

Contrary to its name, Amity is the kind of place where you're likely to find a lot of cold-weather injuries in its citizens, but not necessarily of the physical kind. We're talking frostbite of the soul. Frigid marriages. The cold sting of words. The winter of discontent.

Nell and Billy are the town's newest arrivals, refugees from New York and a bad marriage. They've come to Vermont in an attempt to start over -- Billy to open a new restaurant (the menu is still undetermined, but he knows he wants to have mariachi players in the place); Nell to find solace in the simple task of housecleaning and practicing the cello. It doesn't take us many pages to see there's more tension in their marriage than a rubber band stretched until it turns white.

They move into the old house once occupied by Nell's grandparents. The place is at the end of a country road, but there are plenty of neighbors nearby willing to lend the city-folk a hand (and an ear). There's the widow Lenny and her grandson Jody, an odd, wise mute teenager who turns out to be one of the novel's most compelling characters. The two are occasionally visited by Jody's ne'er-do-well father, Tal, a man who always acts like he's one bomb-tick away from explosion. Up the road, closer to Nell and Billy's place, lives James, a high school history teacher with an acne-scarred face and a cheerful demeanor which masks his pain. Because he and Nell are both on the high school faculty (she teaches music), they strike up a friendship which, in predictable fashion, teeters on romance.

There are plenty of other supporting characters hanging around the edges of the scenery: a teenage girl who has a crush on James, her father who has a crush on Lenny, a local nursery owner (on whom Lenny secretly has a crush), and a dangerous gang of boys with little better to do than cruise the highways looking for trouble. If this all sounds like the cast of a television soap opera, don't worry -- in Ziesk's hands, each character is treated with care and intelligence. These are people the author truly knows and, consequently, so does the reader.

Ziesk (whose first novel, Acceptable Losses, created what The New Yorker described as "a world of startling beauty and grief") assembles a cast of players instantly familiar to anyone who has ever spent more than a few weeks in rural America. The poor, downtrodden, blue-collar folks of Amity get under our skin, and we think about them even when the book has been set aside. These are lived-in lives, not some thin, glossy products of fiction. Though the number of characters can, at first, be daunting, eventually we see them as individuals as they move forward in relentless determination which can only be leading to a tragic clash and burn.

This realistic portraits of the characters help hide one of the book's faults: a plot which is about as predictable as the cold weather which grips the town. We know who will fall in love, who will be heartbroken, who will die pages before it happens. We've seen this tangled stew of love, revenge and flared tempers in countless movies and books. What makes it more palatable here is the way the author pays attention to what makes even the most fictive creation believable. It's too bad that Ziesk didn't take bigger risks with the plot -- she's created the kind of characters readers would follow anywhere. | April 2002

 

David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.