About Grace by Anthony Doerr

07/11/04, The New York Times

In his first novel, About Grace, Anthony Doerr drags his protagonist, David Winkler, over a fair few hot coals: twenty-five years of exile as a toilet cleaner in St Vincent, a near-drowning experience, malnutrition, a clinically debilitating journey in a clapped-out Datsun across the vastness of America, an Alaskan winter in an unheated shed, gradual loss of eyesight, an alienated daughter whom he abandoned when she was a few months old; the comparisons with Lear are flickering and fugitive but inevitable. As Winkler himself cries out, ‘I have already been reduced … leave me be’. Why does Doerr inflict so much on this quiet, retreating hydrologist, a man obsessed with water and snow?

Winkler is no ordinary man. He sometimes dreams of things which, in his waking life, come true. As a boy, he dreams of a man coming out of a shop with a hatbox who will shortly be run over by a bus. In a few days, it happens. This life of prolepsis, with frequent illuminations of déjà vu, of ‘the vertigo of future aligning with the present’, becomes his unraveling. He dreams of the woman with whom he is going to fall in love and the exactness of the circumstances as well. Before long, he is locked in an intense relationship with Sandy Sheeler, married to Herman Sheeler for over fifteen years. Sandy gets pregnant, leaves her husband and Anchorage with Winkler and sets up a new life with him in Cleveland. A few months after their daughter Grace is born, Winkler dreams of an imminent flood in which she will drown while he’s trying to save her from the rising waters.

Rather than have this fate befall him, he escapes to St Vincent, where he is rescued by a Chilean cook, Felix, and his wife, Soma, both exiles themselves from Chile’s political violence and repression. For twenty-five years, which Doerr oddly manages to telescope so that it feels like a tenth of that time, Winkler lives on the island in a dilapidated shed, working as general factotum in an offshore restaurant with a glass floor through which diners can see the sea and its creatures. But it is his friendship with Felix and Soma’s little girl, Naaliyah, to whom he is friend, father-figure, mentor (even academic referee when she decides to go to university in the USA), that holds out the hope of salvation for him. In an act of redemption that  allows Winkler to reorder the patterns of a past for which he has been expiating, he is released from the paralytic torpor infecting his life.  He returns to the USA to search out the wife and daughter he had abandoned.

Doerr traverses again the territory he had marked out in the stories of his lucent first book, The Shell Collector, especially in the eponymous story and ‘The Caretaker’: a rapture with nature expressed in prose that sings off the page; an infinitely subtle algebra of resonance and sympathy between minds, lives, objects, light, senses, weather; the majestic indifference of nature; the proper measure of man against the natural forces he inhabits. Doerr has Thoreau’s compulsion for observation, Wordsworth’s passion for nature that borders on the religious. His prose often brings to mind the nineteenth-century English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and his forging of a new kind of language to capture what he called the haeccitas, the very ‘thisness’, of nature.

But this very strength snakes in on itself and becomes its perilous opposite: what was pitched so perfectly in the circumscribed space of a short story, extended now over 400 pages can appear overcrafted, a hothouse product, at times so swooningly in love with itself that it cannot resist yet another perfectly turned sentence, or four, on the miracle of the hexagonal structure of snow, when more important action is pressing. Doerr’s interest in nature is so obsessive that the whole equation of man-in-nature becomes heavily skewed in favor of the latter, producing fiction of rapturous beauty but of an oddly cold, uninvolving nature, as if it’s embalmed in its own lustrous style.

A transparent passage in the book seems to hold the key to both Doerr’s philosophy and to the central problem of the book. ‘All day … a sensitivity had been building within [Winkler]: the slightest shift in light or air touched the backs of his eyes, reached membranes inside his nose. It was as if, like a human divining rod, he had been attuning to vapor as it gathered in the atmosphere, sensing it – water rising in the xylem of trees, leaching out of stones, even the last unfrozen volumes, gargling deep beneath the forest in tangled, rocky aquifers – all these waters rising through the air, accumulating in the clouds, stretching and binding, condensing and precipitating – falling’. It encapsulates the whole problem of a style that can sometimes stray into the selfconsciously hypersensitive and precious and the problem of balance, the way the human is compulsively stunted in favor of the natural.

The human action and human interests, characterization, dialogue, all appear oddly attenuated when set within the frame of this overdeveloped poetic realism. Pathetic fallacy only works if there is something convincing in the inner weather to which a sympathetic correlative is found in nature. Faced with the occasionally thin credibility of the characters, the exquisite avenues of light and cloud formations and ice crystals down which Doerr leads us prove disappointingly to be cul-de-sacs when we reach the inevitable destination.

Doerr reaches heroically towards the humanization of his novel with Winkler’s return to the US and his attempts to reinscribe himself into the notion and experience of family by tracing Grace, now a young woman with a child of six, Christopher.  Just as his relationship with Naaliyah, a proxy daughter, set him on the path to finding his real one, this time, too, Winkler is given hope, absolution and grace by Herman Sheeler and Christopher, in two relationships combining atonement and a rewriting of the past, a relearning of responsibility. These are definitely the most moving sections of the book, but too much brightness dazzles and distracts, and the wall of luminous prose almost ringfences the reader’s heart, something Doerr clearly wants to sway. A writer as dizzyingly talented and as generous as Doerr should be confident enough to do away with some of the more blinding fireworks.