Book Review: The Dive from Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer (2002)

This particular book is the source of Noggle’s Spurious Law X: Never buy a fiction book where the author has included an acknowledgements section. Especially if the author thanks the NEA.. Of course, I bought this book through a book club, so I missed would have missed that anyway.

I bought this book based on these factors:

  • It’s set in Wisconsin, my home state.
  • Its plot involves a young woman coasting through her 23 years of life who must evaluate her life’s direction when her high school and college sweetheart and bethrothed, with whom she’s grown disenchanted but with whom she was coasting toward matrimony anyway, dives from the titular pier and ends up in a coma. Hey, I know what it’s like to re-evaluate your life. I was twentysomething once, and I am about ten years shy of my mid-life crisis.
  • I have tinkered with the beginnings of a literary novel with a similar theme and wanted to see what I could steal learn from this book.

So what’s not to like about the book?

  1. The author’s not from Wisconsin, nor does the author appreciate Wisconsin. The author lives in Northern California, and hence focuses her coastal lens on the quaint people in the Midwest. The main character talks to another former Wisconsin resident, and she calls them Wisconsonians. Damn it, we’re not Wisconsinians, we’re Wisconsinites. The author also uses the simile bland as Wisconsin. Listen, sister, you don’t do that.

    I’ll admit, I have a chip on my shoulder about the way some coastal types see the rest of the country. If I even catch a slight sniff of superiority from someone who assumes that the relevant country ends at one piedmont or another, I cross my arms and the person’s lost me. Whether it’s an author telling me that life doesn’t begin until you move to New York City or a billionaire venture capitalist saying that offshore developers are as good as the developers in St. Louis–nay, even as good as the developers in SILICON VALLEY, I get the urge to curl the fingers and let fly. Maybe I’m just wound too tight, but I don’t care for the theme.

  2. So let’s just elaborate on the plot, shall we? The main character doesn’t deal with the aftermath of the aforementioned dive. She goes mechanically about her life, alienates her friends, and then when the boyfriend wakes up, kinda wanders into a breakup with him. Then, bam!, it’s section two, wherein she drives to New York City and enjoys some liberation from her Midwestern lifestyle, if you can call “sleepwalks through a relationship with a mysterious and uncommunicative man and through an undirected life in New York” liberation. Just when she’s getting into New York, bam!, she returns to Wisconsin and rediscovers friendships she’s let go and whatnot so she can sleepwalk through them, too.

    Suffice to say, I didn’t care much about the main character, nor did I think much of her “decisions.” I thought the mysterious and uncommunicative man bit was cool, until he revealed his secret torment to her when she had returned to Wisconsin. Quite frankly, it was a rather simplistic and unbelievable revelation. I won’t ruin it by divulging it here. At least they shared some rather vivid boom chokka wokka in the book, which helped keep my interest. Smuttier than Valley of the Dolls, believe you me.

  3. Come on, the voice of the book, the first person narrator, annoys me. She sleepwalks through the entire thing. Personally, I’ve been told for over a decade that my female characters are lacking, werd, and I swear, if the main character of this bit represents an authentic feminine point-of-view, you can expect strictly male characters in my work from here on out. Genre fiction set on planets where men reproduce through fission, I kid you not.

    The main character’s adrift too much for me to like the book, and I don’t see any change in her. At all. So what’s the point of the book? I mean, sometimes the point is the character learns something, but the main character doesn’t indicate any change, other than she returns home to her “bland” state. Give me a break. The heroine crossing the return threshold? She’s supposed to bring something back, darling.

As you might expect from an NEA-funded book, this is a book of “nice moments.” Some parts of the writing are very vivid. So what? Unless they advance the story, these moments are meaningless filler. The whole book’s meaningless filler, a great big slab of life vignette. Unfortunately, it’s an uninteresting life.

If Ann Packer had confronted me with this sort of thing in a writing workshop, I would have given her the business. Of course, that’s why I was hated in writing workshops, fellows, and why I stood pat with the B.A. in Writing-Intensive English. This book shows why I am going to stick to the genre stuff, too. The reader will get a pretty good idea of the scope and nature of the book by the nature of the problem, whether a murder or an invasion from the hordes beyond the mountains. With literary fiction, too often the point or plot is lost in the “nice little moments.”

Kinda like if a Renoir is lost in the Rossian “happy little trees,” if you catch my drift.

Criminey, you people are going to think I never read anything I like. I admit, I’m on a bad streak here, but I have several hundred tomes on my To Read shelf. Certainly, I’ll like something.

Equal time: Here are some other reviews of the book, including one from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that fawn all over the piece and validate the NEA awards. Go read them if you want to know what paid people think of the book.