How far can a novelist coast on fumes? On the surface, that’s an odd question to ask about the work of Montpelier author Thomas Christopher Greene. His novels certainly aren’t plotless — his second, last year’s I’ll Never Be Long Gone, featured a modern-day Cain and Abel in a small Vermont town. His new novel, Envious Moon, is an even more ambitious tale of love that’s obsessive and star-crossed, to say the least. But somehow Greene’s static descriptions end up having far more power than his dramatic conflicts. As moody, ominous watercolors, his novels are considerable achievements. But when the human figures in these landscapes are viewed close up, they tend to blur into generic sameness.
Perhaps that’s because Greene sees people as part of the landscape — passive more often than active, and as slow to change as the eroding hills. And he reminds us that there are reasons to stay put and stay true. Anthony Lopes, the narrator of Envious Moon, grows up in a Rhode Island seaside town where “the only things . . . were death and fishing.” His Portuguese immigrant father pressures the bright boy to go to college and improve his lot in life. But Anthony resists the call of ambition: “I wanted to ask him . . . What’s wrong with my life? What if I want nothing more than to be like you?”
Greene makes clear that this choice isn’t lazy or self-serving. After his father’s death at sea, Anthony follows in his footsteps, netting swordfish in the deep Atlantic — grueling and dangerous work that’s also, for him, fulfilling. “We did it because in the work itself was a simple truth that is so hard to find in this life,” Greene writes, channeling Hemingway. “We were men killing fish. It was no more complicated than that.”
But, of course, things do get more complicated. Anthony’s best friend, who works for an undertaker, sees an irresistible opportunity — an envelope stuffed with cash secreted in the home of a recently deceased widow. Hoping to commit a victimless crime, the two 17-year-olds sneak into the island mansion they believe to be abandoned. It’s not. In the resulting scuffle, a man dies, and Anthony leaves with the money, the guilt and something more important to him — the memory of a glimpse he caught of a girl’s silhouette. Having accidentally killed the father of the house, he’s smitten with the daughter.
If all stories about love at first sight require some suspension of disbelief, this one requires a whole system of ropes and pulleys. Further feats of levitation are necessary to accept the idea of Anthony returning under false pretenses to woo Hannah Forbes, the girl he barely saw the first time, and her reciprocated love for him.
To a degree, Greene makes it work. In a long, idyllic sequence, the two kids from different sides of the tracks live together in the mansion without parental supervision, drinking and cooking and smoking and, well, screwing. Then the police catch up with Anthony. The last acts of the plot put his obsession to the test: Will he run while he has the chance, or risk everything for a few more moments with Hannah? And can her love take the strain of knowing about his crime?
As the narrator, Anthony presents his amour fou without judgment. Sometimes Greene finds creepily laconic ways to convey this, as when Anthony describes a game he and Hannah play, pressing their faces together until “You forget that you’re a separate person somehow. And when you forget this, there is no need to pull away.” Other times, he reaches for hackneyed ones: “The truth was that sometimes it took another person to teach you how to be alive.”
Anthony remains an almost static character: Once he’s infected with his grand passion, he feels “calm and resignation . . . because all the choices I had made led to this one place.” Not for him, as for Shakespeare’s Romeo, to complain of being “fortune’s fool.” When Hannah goes along with his plans, virtually without objection, the story takes on the quality of a fever dream. Would people really behave this way?
In sporadic present-tense chapters where an older Anthony appears to reside in an institution, we get the sense there might be another side to it all. But when Greene finally reveals the card he’s hidden up his sleeve, the “twist” is so halfhearted, you may wish he’d left it there. It’s the equivalent of closing a Hannibal Lecter movie with a lecture by an expert on narcissistic psychopaths — morally satisfying, perhaps, but not artistically so.
Envious Moon is a shorter book than it appears — most chapters clock in at under four pages. It’s a slighter book, too. In setting the scene, Greene is pitch-perfect, whether he’s describing a fateful morning with “air the color of pigeons” or a house that “looked like it was breathing in the fog.” Description is a more significant talent than many readers realize: Here, Greene’s landscapes root Anthony’s emotions in a natural world where they seem as inevitable as the moon’s reflection of the sun. (It’s “envious” because the sun is always full, by the way.) As the description of a trance state, the book is oddly powerful. But it’s hard to feel much sympathy for a character who never considers what he’s missing by not waking up.
From Envious Moon:
For a while, even, everything returned to normal. It was almost as if we had never gone into that house. As if we had stayed on the normal pathway of things the whole time.
Though I never stopped thinking about that night. In my bunk on the North Atlantic when the pitch and roll of the ocean denied me sleep, I returned again and again in my mind to the house. And when I studied what happened as best as I could, something curious happened. I stopped dwelling on the man and his fall. On that death that I was responsible for. Rather, I began to think only about the girl on the stairs. Hannah. To the extent that I considered her father trying to tackle me and then falling, I saw it almost as a separate event, as if it happened on another night. I suppose I knew that this was not right. And perhaps if I thought about it more, I might have realized that the ease with which I did it pointed to some larger flaw that rested within myself. Something that may always have been a part of me, but did not reveal itself until all this happened. And so it was that as I lay looking at the steel bottom of the bunk above me, it was the girl I was haunted by and it was the girl I wanted to haunt me. I dreamed about her. Once she was on the stairs and she screamed and when I said it would be okay I saw her face visibly relax. Another time it was dark and we lay together in a large bed. All I wanted to know was the color of her eyes. I begged her, let me turn on a light. But she shook her head no and kept inviting me to guess. I named every color I could think of, every color I had ever heard of or seen, but none of them were right.
I also began to see her in other places, when I was not sleeping. Times when I began to wonder if I had lost my mind. She would appear suddenly, out of nowhere, like an apparition. Once I saw her in the shiny black eye of a swordfish. The fish was alive. I had just gaffed it and Big Al and I were struggling to get it up on deck. Its eye was small and dark as a marble, and when it caught my attention, I saw her in its reflective surface, staring back at me, her long hair streaming behind her. I must have completely stopped what I was doing. For in a moment I heard Big Al next to me and then I felt him, a swift punch delivered to my biceps with his free hand.
“Anthony,” he said. “What the fuck? Get her up.”
From then on I tried my best to keep her at bay. I tried to think of her only in the deep of night when I was sure I was alone. When I could have her to myself.