REVIEW by Willard Manus
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 books 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 familys 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 books 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 cant 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
Powell masterfully orchestrates the two separate family sagas, holding
off intertwining them until the last third of the book. Its 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 Luthers two teenaged daughters, Katie and Lucy. The latters
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.
Powells dark vision of the USA is an unsettling one, but its truth
and power are indisputable.