Infinite Home, Kathleen Alcott.

Alcott, Kathleen. Infinite Home. Penguin Random House New York, 2015. F;12/17.

I read a short piece by this young author in an issue of Tin House (Volume 19, Number 1) and liked her candid style. In place of the arch post-postmodern abrasiveness of other young writers like Elliott or Moshfegh, she deploys the literary grace and sentiment of another generation: Michael Ondaatje or even Lawrence Durrell. This story (with its titular nod to Wallace) gathers a crowd of characters of more or less equal significance with a slower-moving and much less hip version of the movie The Big Chill’s qualified optimism about friendship.

They all live in a small rundown apartment building in Brooklyn. Pretty well everybody has psychological or physical problems. Thomas has failed as a painter because of a stroke, landlord Edith is dementing, pretty Adeleine upstairs is an agoraphobic hoarder, burnt-out standup comedian Edward just has a bad case of anomie, and Paulie is an (a bit unrealistcally apt) mentally retarded man whose obsessive sister Claudia has left her husband to move in and look after him.

Widowed owner Edith had two kids, Jenny who disappeared into a hippie commune in the 60s and Owen who is a contrastingly hardass business type. Adeleine and Thomas connect up as do Edward and Claudia belatedly, and the warmhearted family character of the building under Edith’s fading kindly maternal oversight is pitted against Owen’s determination to grab the building, evict everybody, upgrade to contemporary Brooklyn standards and make millions.

Kathleen Alcott manages her family of charming characters and pulls everyone together into a credible dénouement with some gentle surprise, justice, and sadness. I think it was the benign kindly tone of this book that prevented me from reacting to it like I did to illness in Gaitskill’s sardonic Veronica. Alcott isn’t leaning as heavily on, nor adopting the same sly familiarity with, being sick or disabled. It’s just an effective way of emphasizing life’s difficulties which sometimes can be overcome.

This book isn’t a blockbuster. There are a few tedious patches and some question-begging of suspension of plot disbelief. Alcott is like Gogol, not Dostoevsky, Chabon not Nabokov, but she wasn’t afraid to fill her first novel with love and kindness. And the Tin House piece I read that led me to Infinite Home convinces that she’s not a sentimentalist.

Another author I’ll be watching for in the future. 8.2/8.7

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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