book by Katie Arnoldi
annotation by Rob Roberge
Once, years ago, when my first book came out and I was enormously excited about said book coming out, a much more experienced writer told me, “One’s a good start, but it’s not a career until you have three out.”
“Really?” I said.
“Over fifty percent of first-time novelists never publish a second,” he said.
This scared me a bit, since it had taken me ten years to learn enough to write my first and I’d thrown away at least two bad novels before finishing my first (or, third, depending on how one looked at such things). “So why isn’t two a career, then?”
“Well, it’s like in math. One doesn’t mean anything. Two can be a coincidence. Three’s a pattern. Until it happens three times, it’s not a pattern. And a pattern is what constitutes a career. It means that’s what you do, for better or worse. You’re a writer.”
I’d never, at that time, heard of this fifty percent deal with first-time novelists, but it turns out, according to various studies in publishing, to be true. A lot, if not a clear majority of writers have only one book in them—which stunned me when I first heard it and still surprises me now. Why would you go through the effort and labor of learning the very difficult craft of putting a book together only to stop after the first? But I guess some writers only have one in them—one thing to say, and then they get on with the rest of their lives.
And the second book not making you a career writer? I suppose that’s open to debate, but it is true, in both math and in publishing and murder (you’re not a serial killer, after all, until you hit three, either, though I heard that is being challenged by certain FBI profilers, among others) that three is a pattern and it means that you’re probably in it (whatever your “it” happens to be) for the long haul.
So, enter Katie Arnoldi’s POINT DUME (Overlook Press, publication date, May 10th), which is as you may have guessed from this preamble, her third novel. Arnoldi, best known, perhaps, for her first novel CHEMICAL PINK (which was a long running LA Times bestseller) has returned, in many ways, to the overall feel, characters, structure and pace that made that first novel such a hit. In between, she published THE WENTWORTHS, a dysfunctional family drama/satire about a wealthy Westside LA family from 2008, which showed a growing confidence and ability in her craft.
POINT DUME is, in short, a combination of the best aspects of her earlier two books. It has the edge and grit and unconventional characters and unexpected scenes of CHEMICAL PINK along with the refined craft and narrative chops exhibited in THE WENTWORTHS.
The novel, while brief and breakneck paced, takes in a wide range of subject matter and characters. It is, in fact, one of the longer short novels you’re likely to read this year (in the best sense—the way THE GREAT GATSBY is a long short novel, surprising for all the ground it covers in a relatively few amount of pages). Arnoldi balances five major POV in the novel—from the memorable self-reliant surfer Ellis, the eccentric pot-dealer Pablo, Janice a bored and quietly despairing homemaker and one of Pablo’s main clients, Janice’s husband Frank (who’s mid-life crisis infatuation with Ellis he misreads for love), and the sad and trapped Felix, who’s been recruited (forcefully) by the Mexican drug cartel to grow pot in the public lands around Malibu in the hills around all of the other character’s homes.
This unlikely cast of characters is brought together in a series of events that always arise organically out of character desire—never because they’re forced into action by the author. Arnoldi writes in a manner that Flaubert talked about—the writer being invisible, filing her nails while the characters act of their own accord. There are two dominant schools of thought about the author’s job. Some believe the author, like a good baseball umpire, should remain unseen. That the only time he or she is noticed is if they’ve blown a call or made a bad move. Then, of course, you have the overt stylists, calling attention to themselves (either in obvious ways, such as in the metafiction of writers like Ray Federman, or the high-wire “look no hands” prose styling of someone like Lee. K. Abbot, who reminds you he’s there by showing off the conscious beauty of his own prose). Arnoldi falls into the former category—never showing the puppet master’s strings on the movements of the characters.
And it works very well. The book hits on a lot of major issues—obsessive love and desire, the death of surf culture invaded by materialistic trend seekers…people who used to be called yuppies (god knows what name they carry these days), illegal pot farms on public lands (an increasingly large issue in California), the savage, dangerous and thoughtless use of human trafficking, the increasing presence of Mexican drug cartels in California, and the environmental cost of it all.
In the end (without giving away the plot twist that brings all these character’s lives together), Arnoldi’s realistic novel takes a turn toward the Naturalistic novels of Zola and Frank Norris. The book’s climax, in many ways, is reminiscent of Norris’ amazing (and, sadly, largely forgotten) 1902 masterpiece THE OCTOPUS (a Naturalistic history of the building of California in the late 1800’s), with the earth re-establishing its dominance and its inevitable lack of concern for the petty desires of humans.
Along the way, you get a rollicking ride. The book is full of memorable characters, tight, lean prose, better sex scenes than most people seem to write these days (why is sex so awful in most books?) and filled with some downright funny and harrowing scenes. It’s, in the best sense, a well-paced, well written page-turner.
~ Rob Roberge’s WORKING BACKWARDS FROM THE WORST MOMENT IN MY LIFE will be published Fall 2010 by Red Hen Press