Sunday, September 10, 2006


For the first third of The Bitter Half, I had to wonder if I was actually reading a novel by Toby Olson. The narrative was straightforward in a way his novels never are. The narrator, Chris Pollard, is a specialist in prisons who consults with wardens around the country in an attempt to halt escapes. He meets up with 'the kid,' a charming teenager who routinely escapes from prisons, and hears a dark Faulknerian tale of childhood. Sometimes the kid's dog Buck becomes the central consciousness. The setting moves around from Mexico to Wisconsin to Louisiana to Philadelphia, the Depression a weighty backdrop.

But things derailed quickly and the mysterious Olson obsessions with masks and endlessly embedded significations and miscues materialized. The narrator is not at all what was imagined, calling entirely into question our reading of the novel's first (bitter?) half. We realize we've not been mislead, but have made assumptions based on appearances, which obviously deceived. Toby set a trap and we fell for it deeply. Then acrobats and illusionists and uncanny coincidences brought us to more familiar Olson territory.

Perhaps The Bitter Half is his best novel since the greats Dorit in Lesbos, The Woman Who Escaped from Shame, and Seaview. Perhaps I'll revisit it in a few years as I do his others to understand better the delicious manner in which my former Temple University prof flumoxes me.

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