To Be Sung Underwater

by Tom McNeal
(Little Brown: 436 pp., $24.99)

You can often tell where a musician has trained or with whom a painter has learned technique. In the case of European masters (sculptors, painters, printmakers etc.), art historians, looking at a particular work, can trace the lineage to a region, a studio, a teacher. Oenologists, of course, taste the terroir in a wine. It is no different for literature—you get a whiff of McPhee in the descriptive passages here, a bit of Ron Carlson in the mysterious interplay of humans and landscapes there, a smidgeon of Jayne Anne Phillips in the historic context, a taste of Raymond Carver in the curve balls, or Gordon Lish’s tough-love New York workshop-style in the sentence structure or the lack of sentiment. After all, most of our finest writers have taught in colleges and universities (sometimes grudgingly, sometimes lovingly). There are family trees in American literature; it should come as no surprise. One of the most distinctive branches holds the Wallace Stegner fellows (including Harriet Doerr, Ron Hanson, Tobias Wolff, Vikram Seth, Alice Hoffman)—it’s a big branch, and sturdy. Tom McNeal is one of the finest examples to come along in a while. His first novel, “Goodnight, Nebraska,” won the James A. Michener Memorial Prize when it was published in 1999. “To Be Sung Under Water” is his second novel.

How can you recognize the Stegner training? First, the novel is so carefully written. You cannot skip sentences, paragraphs or even words without missing something. Second, the main characters, Judith and Willy are exquisitely drawn, backwards and forwards; how they got to be who they are (including prior generations), how they behave when they get what they want and also when they don’t, how they face disappointment, fear, commitment, money, career and finally love. Third, the world of the novel is full of meaning, full of metaphor; a kind of spirituality that has no need for dogma or churches or liturgy. The landscape and culture contribute by making things easier or harder to accomplish, but the humans hack out their bit of happiness, some might say their karma. Fourth, and finally, the wisdom: Stegner’s novels (and so often those of his students), by withholding judgment, teach the reader something about what kind of person he or she wants to be.  Consider, for example, this simple sentence: “looking back, he thought she was only as happy as a person waiting for the next phase of her life might be.” (p132). Or this: “Adolescence is a skin we never quite shed.” (p226) Or this: “She was purely happy. She knew it then, within the moment, rather than sometime later, which was when she usually recognized her brushes with happiness.” (p284) These insights require not only experience and intelligence but also patience and wisdom.  “To Be Sung Underwater” is blessed with these qualities.

When we first meet Judith, we can hear the brakes screeching. She is forty-four, and the wrong turn she took twenty-seven years ago is impeding her forward movement. The banker she married appears to be having an affair with his assistant, her teenage daughter is angry that her workaholic parents are never home, Judith (a film editor) is failing for the first time to meet her producer’s expectations and she’s getting migraine headaches. She finds herself thinking about her late teens, the years she spent with her father in Nebraska after her parents separated. She finds herself thinking about Willy Blunt, the man she loved in those years.

There is no plan to the unraveling. Judith finds herself renting a storage locker near her home in Toluca Lake to hold a birds-eye maple bed that was hers when she was a teenager in her father’s home (the bed has a story—Judith and her father restored it together—but Camille doesn’t want it any more and her father has bought her a big new canopy bed). She gives the attendant at the facility a pseudonym—Edie Winks—a stage-name she chose back when she and Willy spent languid summer days together imagining the future. She sets the bed up in the storage locker and finds herself skipping work to daydream there.

Judith, sarcastic and aloof, was not a likeable adolescent, and she’s not a particularly likeable adult. But McNeal, chapter by chapter, combs out her knots. We can see that the serenity she found in her father’s house and the love she shared with Willy, a farm boy and a carpenter, allowed her best self some growing room. And then something happened, something that scared all three and set Judith on the path to college at Stanford and life in Los Angeles with the banker.

Can you go back to that purer, better self? It’s one of the best questions in literature—on the stage of the novel, a writer can stop characters mid-life, turn them around, hurl them at the past, watch them shatter or mend. While Judith has been building her storage unit for her better self, Willy has also created a kind of memorial to their time together, a place to contain their life together, truncated as it was by Judith’s ambition.

But “To Be Sung Underwater” is a love story. Judith does go back. What does she hope to find? Is it too late? Too late for what? Love stories have a terrible gravity, a centrifugal force. Scenes, memories, conversations and revelations have an urgency and a sense of meaning they might not without the imperative of loving well and fully in so short a time as a life provides. McNeal has created characters so dimensional, so memorable, that we are caught up in that urgency, victims of the dopamine. Our rationality is compromised; the rules of the world fade away. This is your last chance, Judith, do you hear me—we shout at the flimsy pages. Get yourself back to Rufus Sage, Nebraska, and fast! There’s not a moment to lose! 

But the café is closing. All the other patrons have left. The barista is exhausted. He just wants to clean up and go home. And there you sit, out on the ledge that great books put you on—looking out at the city or the night sky or the empty street. That’s where the wisdom comes in handy. Wallace Stegner and his student Tom McNeal did not set out to help us lead better lives. But in so many ways they do.