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Book review: The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian


Published February 19, 2007 at 8:42 p.m.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." The last words of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby have endured because they convey a wealth of yearning; of brooding over lost years and hopes unfulfilled. Jay Gatsby is one of literature's great failures: He lived the American Dream and lost it, burning with the brilliance of the Jazz Age until he was snuffed.

So it's not hard to see why Lincoln writer Chris Bohjalian thought of Gatsby as he plotted his 10th novel, The Double Bind. As Bohjalian explains in an Author's Note, the book "had its origins" in the true story of Bob "Soupy" Campbell, a homeless man who arrived at Burlington's Committee on Temporary Shelter in 1995. COTS found him the apartment where he died seven years later. But Campbell left behind an incredible legacy: a box of images and negatives taken during the 1960s and '70s, when he was a photographer in New York.

As Gatsby adorned his era, so Campbell chronicled his - photos reprinted in the book show erstwhile celebrities and evocative street scenes from a world that no longer exists. And, like Gatsby's story, Campbell's arouses a peculiarly American fear of downward mobility. Anyone could become homeless someday, his example suggests; those who succeed simply have farther to fall.

All this helps explain why, when Bohjalian decided to create a fictitious counterpart of Bob Campbell, he placed him in a world in which Jay Gatsby is real, rather than fictional. We discover this in the early pages of the Burlington-set novel, before we've even heard of Bobbie Crocker, the aged photographer whose schizophrenia left him homeless.

The novel's protagonist is Laurel Estabrook, the young worker at "BEDS" who takes possession of Crocker's photos after his death. In the Prologue, we learn that Laurel's life was fractured by a brutal attempted rape that occurred while she was biking in the woods near Underhill in her second year at UVM. The remembered terrors of that day make the young woman nostalgic for the "safe haven of her childhood in West Egg" - the Long Island town Fitzgerald created as a setting for Gatsby's mansion.

If you don't catch the literary allusion, you soon will. When Laurel is shown Crocker's photographs, she finds images of Tom and Daisy Buchanan's mansion, familiar from her childhood. (For those who need a refresher of 10th-grade English, Daisy was Gatsby's married lover.) The images convey an odd intimacy, as if Crocker belonged to the family. Laurel shows them to Pamela Buchanan Marshfield, the couple's haughty elderly daughter, who denies all knowledge of Crocker but dispatches her lawyer to retrieve the photos from BEDS by any means he can.

Laurel begins to suspect there's something hidden in Crocker's images: something the Buchanans want to keep that way. She becomes obsessed with the mystery, though she knows her single-mindedness may make her appear "as delusional as a good many of her clients." Why can't she let it go? Because another of Crocker's photos depicts that fateful road in Underhill, and a distant girl on a bike who may be Laurel.

Bohjalian has crafted a complex, multilayered plot, guaranteed to keep the reader in suspense. In that respect, The Double Bind is a far cry from his previous novel, Before You Know Kindness, which built to an all-too-predictable anticlimax. Whatever you may think of Bohjalian's appropriation of a classic novel, the Gatsby story still has a lot of melodramatic juice to squeeze, and he does it well. Pamela Buchanan, unflinchingly loyal to a family she knows could be considered "decadent, careless, unfeeling," is a substantial antagonist. One wonders if Laurel, like Gatsby and perhaps Crocker before her, will fall victim to the power of the Buchanans' old money to twist the truth.

Ultimately, though, the proof of a psychological mystery is in the pudding - that is, in the denouement. The most one can say without spoiling this one's ending is that it radically alters our view of everything that's happened so far - in some ways clarifying our vision, in other ways leaving it hopelessly muddled.

To pull off a twist like this, an author needs to have absolute mastery of his narrating voice - the novel needs to be so artfully constructed that we can reread it and hear fore-rumblings of the seismic shifts to come, warnings we missed the first time around. It's a formidable feat for any writer, and Bohjalian's craft doesn't quite get him there. He narrates The Double Bind in a voice that's too obviously, distinctively, his - from the eloquent descriptions to the occasionally stilted diction and a tendency to belabor the point. "She was an altogether most pathetic little victim" is how he concludes the tale of Laurel's ordeal in the woods, which is otherwise a skillful, harrowing piece of writing.

It's only when Bohjalian stops telling us what we already know and starts showing us things that he achieves effects comparable to those of Campbell's photographs. We feel that haunting quality in his updated version of the piece of industrial land Fitzgerald called "the valley of ashes": "Then [Laurel] was on the highway itself, rolling past the ambitionless office parks built upon the ash heaps and the remnants of a world's fair. Past the Unisphere and the skeletal remains of the once great pavilions: the visible detritus of that era's unachieved aspirations. Didn't she see daily the castoffs and casualties sprung loose by an ever-spinning globe?"

Like the fictional Bobbie Crocker, Bob Campbell may have been one of those casualties. But the book - and accompanying exhibit - ensure that the things he saw and captured with his camera won't be forgotten.


From The Double Bind:

"And for an old man, he sure had a lot of spunk," Laurel said, conjuring a picture in her mind of Bobbie Crocker and recalling some of their last conversations. They were, invariably, as interesting as they were demented. They were not unlike the sort of banter she shared with many of the people who passed through the shelter, in that she could safely presume easily half of what he was telling her was a complete fabrication or delusion. The difference - and in Laurel's mind it was a substantial one - was that victimization was rarely a part of Bobbie's anecdotes. This was atypical for a schizophrenic, but she understood it was also likely that she only saw him at his best: By the time she met him, he was once again being properly medicated. Still, he seldom complained to Laurel or lashed out, and only infrequently did he suggest that he was owed anything by the world. Certainly, Bobbie believed there were conspiracies out there: Usually, they had something to do with his father. But as a rule he was confident he had dodged them.