May 2010
THREE DELAYS by Charlie Smith
A review of

Three Delays

by Charlie Smith

Central question: Love: good thing or bad thing?
Main characters: Billy Brent, mediocre Floridian journalist and former child preacher; Alice Stephens, muse, hothead, self-destructor; Obligatory plot summary: Boy meets girl in childhood, falls for her, grows up, ruins lives; Sample list of unusual words used: staggerama, boondocked, arsenical, biota; Drugs consumed by protagonists: quaaludes, marijuana, heroin, pills, copious amounts of alcohol; Years author served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Micronesia: 1968–1970 ; Year in which author graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop: 1984; Year in which author published his last novel, Cheap Ticket to Heaven: 1996

Three Delays, itself multiply delayed by the author’s thirteen-year hiatus from fiction writing, during which time he instead wrote some very fine poetry collections (Heroin and Other Poems, etc.), contains the following paragraph:

So this is what it’s like, we said, meaning everything. We’d had years of wild love. You could come around to our back door and ask for lessons, but we wouldn’t give them to you. We weren’t stingy, we were just busy. Her face—was too much for me. Love leeching my heart to pulp. The rind never had time to grow back. Each day like the first day in the fucking Garden of Eden, each a day where you started over from the top with a different woman, always the same woman, named Alice, wife of Billy. We’d had years of what everybody else was dying to get. Every day I had enough of her. Every day I had to get some more. Now she sleeps, resting on her side, her face angled into eternity. I liked to wake her up just enough to bring her back to the world. I liked to do it more than once. “I’m not your toy,” she said, but she was, toy and dream and rest, as the poet says—golem, rapid transit device, Checkpoint Charlie, mistral, my day at the beach. In the Blue Ridge we used to get high sitting at the kitchen table in our bungalow—that was how the last story started. In the afternoons we got high and took walks through the woods down to the creek where we stripped naked and bathed in the cold water, sometimes arguing, sometimes sullen, shocked by each other still, rageous, terribly frightened, an inch away from a fit sometimes, an attack of fury and hatred that would cover over our terror, our powerlessness, the fear we had of arriving nowhere holding nothing. The hemlocks dripped their secret elixirs upon us, the moss was damp like secret hair and the rocks blackly glistened. We were never at home on the earth. Not for a minute. Love—call it love—made us forget this, dragged this knowledge down, put it under the ground awhile.

I recognize that I’m using up much of my review with this quotation, but it’s so good, as are so many passages in this novel—this religious tract, this grabbing-of-your-lapels, this psychotic rant, this romance that is larger than the habitable world—that I cannot stop myself. Three Delays is so stunningly composed, so wildly, implausibly, excessively written, that it makes the entire shelf of novels from the last generation superfluous. The story? The characters devour the story. They mainline the narrative into collapsing veins, they rise up out of locales like the Everglades, the Mexican countryside, Istanbul, and flatten these settings with their apparently unending (since death doesn’t make a dent) cycles of desire, contempt, violence (and repartee). True, events transpire in order to justify 352 pages of text, and these events, such as they are, escalate from inadvisable to hair-raising to enough to cause copious weeping in a reader. And yet, in the end, besides Alice and Billy and their rapacious longing, there is little in this book that consists of incident or setting. There is little but the incantatory, rebel angel prose that has made Charlie Smith a consummate outsider, and also one of the very best prose writers in contemporary letters. Want to read about how harrowing and essential love can really be? Dip in here. Be made alive.

—Rick Moody

Rick Moody’s forthcoming novel is The Four Fingers of Death. He plays music in the Wingdale Community Singers. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.

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