Wide Blue Yonder
by Jean Thompson
Published by Simon & Schuster
367 pages, 2002
Buy it online
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
According to Josie Sloan, the bright but angst-ridden 17-year-old at the heart of Jean Thompson's delightful new novel, nothing ever happens in Springfield, Illinois: "You could die of boredom a dozen different ways. You could spend your days roaming the aisles of the Dollar General, stuffing your cart full of depressing ticky-tacky, or you could marry one of the local oafs and have baby races with all the other oafettes, or you could wipe down the sticky counter of the Taco Bell for the twentieth time so the same fly could keep landing on it, like Josie was doing now."
With an opening like that, you know you're in good hands, for in only a couple of sentences Thompson lets us get right into Josie's head. Not only do we know where she is physically (stuck in a mind-numbingly dull summer job), but we know her soul: her restlessness, cynicism and yearning for something finer than the doldrums of Springfield in the blistering summer of 1999.
Josie may be convinced that nothing ever happens in Springfield, but a lot is going on below the ho-hum surface: psychological eddies and currents, spiritual turbulence, and a certain sense of approaching disaster. For as the cover proclaims, Wild Blue Yonder is "a novel about weather in all its permutations; climatic, emotional, even metaphysical." Thompson even calls Springfield "the place the Weather lived."
It also has its own self-appointed prophet. Josie's great-uncle Harvey, who is as nutty as the white rabbit of the same name, calls himself Local Forecast. Ask him how he's doing and he'll tell you, "Frontal system over the upper Great Lakes will remain nearly stationary through tomorrow, with thunderstorm activity expected along a line from Minneapolis east as far as Detroit."
That's because Harvey squints at the TV all day with his last remaining glimmers of eyesight, watching the weather channel. His behavior is beyond eccentric, but even with his mind in disordered fragments he radiates a kind of harmless sweetness.
Josie's mother Elaine worries about Harvey, about how he manages alone and nearly blind in that falling-down old house, lost in his own little meteorological universe. But this is not her only burden. Cheery and optimistic on the surface, 45-year-old Elaine secretly yearns to connect: with her generally sullen, uncommunicative daughter; with her heartless ex-husband Frank who has latched on to a chirpy new wife named Teeny (known to answer the phone with a "melodic, three-syllable hel-lo-o that sounded like a door chime"); with the larger world.
Like Josie, who would rather die than admit to resembling her mother in any way, Elaine is a frustrated idealist at heart. "She believed in responsibilities. Acts of charity. They were positive things that you could balance against all the wreckage and mistakes of your life. So far she had a business that worked, a marriage that hadn't, and a daughter that the jury was still out on."
As Elaine battles to keep her imported fabric store afloat, she knows something is up with Josie but can't pry it out of her. The bored, frustrated young woman is ripe for misadventure and, one day when an impossibly good-looking cop named Mitch strides into the Taco Bell in full uniform, Josie falls down like a row of dominoes: "Every time she looked at him she felt the cheap crockery in her chest break all over again."
While these emotional storm systems swirl in Springfield, a tornado is brewing in Los Angeles. Rolando Gottschalk, a petty criminal whose misdeeds soon escalate into murder, is on the lam in a stolen car, fleeing one ugly act after another in a random path of destruction that will eventually lead him to Springfield. Rolando is Thompson's wild card, a natural disaster waiting to happen. Unlike her other characters, he seems to have no redeeming qualities at all. This is the only real weak spot in a novel which otherwise paints its characters vividly and sympathetically.
Eventually Rolando will become the magnetic center for a climactic event that will force all the other characters together, not just literally but emotionally. The naked confrontation at the novel's end somehow manages to be simultaneously shocking, touching and downright hilarious.
There are fine lines between humor and horror in this novel, and a deep thirst for meaning in a superficial world. Below Springfield's sunny surface lurks the sense that something ominous is about to happen, God's judgment descending in the form of an earthquake, hurricane or flood. The way Thompson gets into the deeper layers of her characters is masterful. We learn that gentle, befuddled Uncle Harvey suffered unspeakable religious and sexual abuse as a child, leaving him terrified of God and unable to connect deeply with other human beings.
Sunny Elaine is privately as full of angst as Josie, trying to ration herself to just one glass of wine at the end of yet another frustrating, trying day. Josie's agonies and ecstasies over Mitch the cop evoke the wild emotional and hormonal storms of adolescence.
But it is the way the characters try to connect, fail and try yet again that is the most heart-tugging. Thompson manages to convey enormous love between Elaine and Josie, even in their static-ridden, prickly conversations in which they seem to talk right past each other. And in spite of -- or maybe even because of -- their flaws and frailties, both are so innately likable that we care deeply what happens to them.
On top of that, Thompson can turn out a delicious sentence: "It was one of those maples that turned so gold you wanted to put a leaf in your mouth." "Fat Cat poured into his lap and solidified there, thrumming away." She speaks of "a thought that was like a stone in his shoe," the "miserability index," and "a longing that felt like a migraine of the heart."
"The Weather was one thing that was nobody's fault," she concludes. After all, we can't stop it or even change it; ours is just to face into it, batten down the hatches in times of turbulence, and enjoy what sunlight there is with an open heart. In the final analysis Thompson's weather, both literal and existential, stands in as a powerful metaphor for life itself. | April 2002
Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She has written two novels, A Singing Tree and Better Than Life, and is at work on a third, Nola Mardling. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.