The Sheltering

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Mark Powell has written a memorable American novel, THE SHELTERING, (The University of South Carolina Press). In this, his fourth novel, Powell digs deep into post-9/11 American life, uncovering the broken world at its heart.

Just about every character in THE SHELTERING has been wounded by the events of the last three decades: the terrorism, wars, political debacles, economic failures, drug use and ethical collapse. The pain these people feel, the horrors they have lived through, are laid bare, confronted boldly and bravely by the author. Powell is also an accomplished story-teller, one whose strong narrative gift and vivid prose style kept this reader enthralled for every one of the book’s three hundred pages.

THE SHELTERING tells the stories of two southern families, the Reddings and the Rosens. The former is headed by Luther and Pamela Redding. She once sold real estate but now spends more time at the gym than at her desk. Luther once flew airliners and made a lot of money, all of which was invested in property and was lost when the bubble burst. To avoid becoming homeless --–“the family’s collapse had scarily mirrored that of the nation”-- Powell notes, Luther enlists in the Air Force and ends up piloting Predator drones in a Florida control room, focusing on military targets in Afghanistan, some six thousand miles away.

In the book’s opening scene, Luther, after long hours at his computer console watching over a “squat aluminum-sided building” where a terrorist named Kareem Saman was hiding, finally presses the kill button and watches as the drone attacks and Saman “becomes brightness.” Luther can’t help but think of himself as the Reaper, “as omniscient and whirling as God.” This thought will continue to gnaw away at him, push him closer and closer to the edge of madness.

Bobby Rosen is another damaged warrior, a working-class guy who had joined the army out of patriotic fervor, only to be traumatized by the horror and chaos of the Iraq war. While on patrol in Sadr City a hidden bomb exploded, maiming and killing people. In the smoke and uproar, a sergeant spots a boy fleeing and screams, “Somebody kill that motherfucker!” Bobby is the one who chases the kid down and does the job. It is a brutal act that he will never get over.

Bobby has other, even more onerous problems: his younger brother Donny has just got out of prison and it falls to him to look after him. Donny is clever and charismatic, but also a drug user and pusher–-and psychotic to boot. Against his will, Bobby hooks up with him and they hit the road together on a mad, meth-fueled crime-spree of a trip, hoping to reach Los Angeles and carve out a new life for themselves. But that pipe-dream (pun intended) proves to be illusory; the world will not afford them shelter or allow them to escape from their fate. “They were dinosaurs from birth, predestined, condemned before the act,” Bobby realizes as the police close in on them...and they begin to deliberately overdose on pills.

Powell masterfully orchestrates the two separate family sagas, holding off intertwining them until the last third of the book. It’s quite a novelistic feat, matched only by his gift for character: his troubled males are brilliantly realized, equally so the various females we encounter, especially Luther’s two teenaged daughters, Katie and Lucy. The latter’s fierce spirituality–-she is desperately trying to lead a Christian life–- is constantly tested by the shallowness and ghastliness of southern suburbia with its kitschy Bible theme parks, foreclosed houses, dreary strip malls and rapacious TV preachers. Her own lusty sexuality further discombobulates her.

Powell’s dark vision of the USA is an unsettling one, but its truth and power are indisputable.