The Sophomore Slump is one of those widely accepted anomalies of human life. It makes you wonder about Paul Harding and his new sophomore novel, Enon. Harding rode the literary rocket of the Pulitzer Prize to minor stardom in 2010, becoming the first novelist in thirty years to win The Pulitzer from a small press. How does one follow up the accomplishment of a lifetime, achieved in a fell swoop?
Enon returns to the same small-town New England family of the Crosbys, and is narrated by Charlie Crosby, the grandson of George who was the antagonist of Tinkers. Charlie opens his story by recounting his great tragedy: “Most men in my family make widows of their wives and orphans of their children. I am the exception. My only child, Kate, was struck and killed by a car while riding her bicycle home from the beach one afternoon in September, a year ago.” Harding makes clear that it is not a story about a death, but instead it is about the mourning and recovery that comes after. Family and legacy are important to Charlie—one can see how he mentions his inheritance before he does his daughter’s death. This legacy sits just beneath the symbolic surface throughout the course of the book, vacillating between the history of town and the history of the Crosbys.
Harding’s choice to name the town and river “Enon” is one of the most intriguing elements of the book. As Charlie tells us, Enon was
spelled Aenon for the first four years of the village’s existence, is from the Greek ainon, which is from the Hebrew enayim, which means double spring, or more generally, a place of abundant water. It is mentioned in the Gospel of John. The evangelist baptized in Enon because there was much water there.
The metaphor and expectation of a baptism hangs over the book like Chekov’s gun until the heavy-handed end and is sure to provide great fodder for book clubs. Enon is also translated as “fountain” or “source,” which builds the town, for Charlie, into an old holy land, one with a deep, rich, and powerful legacy. He’s read all four books of the town’s history, and in deep hallucinatory moments, the history blends with reality until they are momentarily indistinguishable. The past is never dead for Charlie and is entwined in the buildings themselves, such that the “houses retain traces of the people who have lived in them and I feel those traces immediately whenever I step into one.” Coupled with this is the overhanging legacy of his family: “…behind me were the ghost I always expected to have there, looking over my shoulder. But after the accident, ghosts surrounded me. My whole family made a circumference of ghosts, with me the sole living member in the middle.”
After Kate’s death, all of this history and grief bears down on Charlie, sending him into the grip of depression and substance abuse. While the depiction of someone’s slow descent into full-on addict is believable and heartbreaking, it is hard to come to terms with how completely Charlie gives over to it: a blue-collar man, well respected, with a home and a family, becomes a junky worthy of The Wire after several months. Charlie’s dark descent takes up the heart of the book, and it is a slow and ponderous one, rotating around disjointed memories of his life and his daughter, Kate. While the aimlessness of these sagas perhaps resembles the lost nature of utter grief, it gives the book a lack of direction and leaves the reader looking for Harding’s providential hand, or at leas the hint of one. Many of the vignettes are reminders of why Harding won The Pulitzer in the first place, such as when Charlie tries to express his loss as a mathematical proof: “My thoughts quickly became confused as I tried to demonstrate the calculus of grief, to draw up a circuit or graph or model written on the wall that captured the function of loss.”
Charlie ends up circling this drain for about 150 pages without making much progress besides using and acquiring more drugs, and as a result the novel loses some steam. The beautiful, page-long metaphors start to feel overwritten without any other pacing or tension. Harding, through Charlie, is a titan of detail, often to a fault. For instance, Charlie describes the end of a perfect day with ice cream:
I took two bowls from the cabinet and two spoons from the drawer. I grabbed a carton of ice cream from the freezer and scooped some into the bowls and we both sat at the table savoring the cold sweet sugary crystalline ice cream while the moths bounced and plinked against the ceiling lamp above our heads.
This moment falls flat because it reveals little if anything about Charlie or the situation—it’s a familiar and tedious description that draws little sense or perspective about why this moment, among all memories, is special to Charlie. (Though it is impressive that “ice cream” can have four descriptors without one of them mentioning the flavor.) Counter this with a similar memory Charlie has about the how he ended his days landscaping:
I missed those final moments of the afternoon, the loamy quality of light that illuminates the last of the day in its true suspension, and that coolness and the freshly scrubbed earth, that clean, satisfied fatigue, that savory anticipation of a hot shower and a steak and, later, a whiskey and a game of cribbage with Kate before she went to bed.
The difference between these moments is perhaps subtle: here, Charlie is charged with emotion and longing, the perspective is unique and interesting to the reader, especially the “loamy” quality of the light, and it ties back into the greater relief and comfort that his daughter brought him, what Charlie calls “savory anticipation.” Throughout Enon, Harding oscillates between these moments of purply prose and lovely poetry.
In the end, Charlie’s struggles wrap up quite quickly; in about the final ten pages, and in the last few sentences, we’re suddenly reading about a different-seeming character. The rapidity of it leaves the reader puzzled. Any resolution comes as a sudden shock: the book keeps circling back on itself, on Charlie and Kate’s tragedy, so that any kind of deliverance at the very end feels as if the literary train jumped the tracks.
Hopefully, Enon will get to stand on its own worthwhile merits, and not get swept up in comparisons to its monumental predecessor, Tinkers. It is a small story and big exploration into what it means to lose control, in more ways than one. What will be of interest in coming years is what comes next for Harding, the rocket-riding winner of the Pulitzer Prize: does he stay in small-town New England and turn the Crosbys into a brand, or does he strike out into pastures perhaps greener and untrodden?