Review: Abbott Awaits

Issue #117
Spring 2012

Abbott Awaits, Chris Bachelder’s third novel, is as different from his second, U.S.! (a fantasia-parable about the American left, in which socialist and novelist Upton Sinclair is serially resurrected and serially assassinated), as his second was from his first, Bear vs. Shark (the nation is collectively distracted from all other matters, public or private, by the computer-simulated contest named in the title). Together, the three very different books make a strong case that Bachelder is among the most rewarding American novelists of his generation: formally inventive, morally earnest, nuanced, generous, funny, a writer on whom nothing is lost.

Abbott Awaits is set in what internal clues suggest is the summer of 2006. Abbott is a humanities professor in western Massachusetts, and he is awaiting the birth of his second child. His wife is in the third trimester of a difficult pregnancy, and Abbott is for the time being chief caregiver for their toddler daughter.

Between a prologue set at the end of the spring 2006 semester and a matching epilogue set at the beginning of the fall 2006 semester are three sections, “June,” “July,” and “August,” composed of thirty, thirty-one, and again thirty-one subsections—one for each day of each month, in other words. These subsections, each printed as one continuous paragraph and written in the present tense, typically run a page or two in length and inhabit some middle ground between narration and essay. We could almost call the book a fictional journal, save that Abbott is always “Abbott” and never “I,” and each day’s entry has the completeness and finish of a well-turned short story.

As an academic who once spent a decade of summers looking after two growing daughters, I can attest that Bachelder depicts the life of the at-home-for-the-summer dad with flashback-inducing accuracy. There are the daily givens of, on the one hand, “shit, snot, piss, blood, vomit, rust, and rot,” and on the other, “books, toys, coins, buttons, beads, and costume jewelry,” along with inflatable pools, clogged plumbing, a room that has to be converted to a nursery, and a disintegrating couch that has to be replaced immediately even though no furniture outlet within a day’s drive has anything remotely suitable. There is the blessed, longed-for relief of nap-time, the sudden heart-stopping anxiety when nap-time goes well over the usual hour, the insistent need to check that the napping child is all right, and the certainty that the checking will wake her up, thus ending the sweet respite of nap-time. There is the euphoria of vicarious wonder when Abbott is mesmerized by “a minimum-wage employee in a gorilla costume” simply because his daughter is so mesmerized: “She is a conductor. She conducts wonder. Wonder passes from the world to Abbott through his daughter.” In short, Bachelder does full justice to the paradoxical state of exhausted, enervated enchantment that is the lot of a toddler’s parent: “Abbott approaches sleep with an ineffable sense of relief that he did not know, before having a child, what it was like to have a child—did not really know what it was really like— because if he had known before having a child how profoundly strenuous and self-obliterating it is to have a child, he would never have had a child, and then, or now, he would not have this remarkable child.”

Abbott’s is the only point of view the novel offers, but Bachelder wisely makes the narration a click or two more clear-eyed and insightful than Abbott is himself. When, for instance, Abbott makes a parental ruling that a certain roll of stickers is not to be deployed until they are at home, despite repeated appeals, the narrative dryly observes, “an unreasonable position held unwaveringly amounts to good parenting.” Bachelder is especially good at providing glimpses of Abbott’s fallibility as a husband. His wife’s pregnancy is exhausting, annoyances frequent, nerves frayed, cooperation and sympathy crucial, but Abbott is not consistently all the way up to the mark. “A marriage, especially a marriage with children, cannot function properly if both its constituents are in foul temper, thus the Bad Mood is a privilege only one spouse can enjoy at a time,” notes the entry for June 12, titled “Abbott Hogs the Mood.” The one-sentence entry for June 18 is exemplary micro-fiction: “Abbott would like to think he is a good guy, and yet his wife is up there sobbing, and he’s down here with the superglue.” When Abbott discovers water in the basement while wife and daughter are out for the afternoon, he promptly calls a plumber; the plumber arrives so quickly that Abbott is a bit discomposed by the possibility that the problem may be solved before his wife even sees it, thus subtly diminishing the credit he will get for solving it.

The most telling episode occurs after another fruitless search for a new couch. Upon their return, Abbott’s wife sees a small object lying on the driveway, nudges it with her foot, then picks it up and tosses it onto the lawn. Abbott asks what it was; nothing, she says. He presses at dinner; she claims it was a coin. At bedtime, he systematically dismantles the possibility that the object was a coin, and again demands to know what it was. A lock of hair, she admits, which she removed because she knew he would have “a reaction” to it. An astute reader of fiction, Abbott knows all about the significance of insignificant moments: “It could be insignificant, but it could also represent something large, some kind of turning point.” Is he in a Richard Yates novel, a John Updike short story? “It could be the moment he understands something—either the marriage is so deep he will never touch bottom or the fact that the marriage will not work out.” Fortunately for him, he is in Abbott Awaits, and his wife simply lays a hand on his chest: “her hand is warm and small. The pressure of her touch is not heavy, but neither is it light.”

Abbott Awaits is not heavy, but neither is it light. Its structure is simple and elegant—exactly the sort of thing a writer who is a parent of young children could compass, we might say. The entries often have the interchangeability that summer days with toddlers tend to have, but nonetheless a subtle plot arc bends toward a climactic event. “Nothing else so ordinary is ever called miraculous,” Bachelder writes, oxymoron being the only figure that will serve for the ordinary miracle of childbirth: “Here’s the pediatrician’s forearm. Here’s the wife, so close and so far away. Here’s the terror, the full and expanding heart. Here’s what happened to Abbott.”

To call Abbott Awaits heart-warming would lead you to think of it as exactly the kind of book it is not, so let’s borrow Bachelder’s own “heart-expanding”—tart and sweet, painful and funny, all too true.

Scott Stanfield is a professor at Nebraska Wesleyan University and the lead singer and songwriter for the band Prairie Psycho.