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Shelter in place

Newspaper: The Gilmore Guide to Books
Date: Sep 28 2016
URL: http://gilmoreguidetobooks.com/2016/09/shelter-in-place/

Alexander Maksik doesn’t waste any time getting to the meat of his new novel Shelter in Place. The first chapter is a small paragraph introducing Joe March with three facts: his mother beat a man to death with a hammer, he fell in love with a woman named Tess and he battles a black weight that fills him, sometimes taking the shape of a large bird. Joe also lets us know

I’m not going to tell you everything. You should know that from the start. I won’t answer all of your questions. This is not every single thing. It is only one version. Please remember that.

From this brief introduction Maksik shifts to the summer of 1991 when Joe is twenty-one and all of the above facts occur. First, the “black tar” of bipolar disorder descends, then he meets Tess while bartending in a small Oregon town. Finally, his mother, Anne-Marie, kills a man after seeing him beat his wife and children. He leaves Oregon and Tess and joins his father in White Plain, Washington to be near the prison where his mother is serving a life sentence. He is resigned to a life of bartending, visiting his mother in prison and battling a black bird in his soul. Then Tess arrives and he’s not alone in any of it anymore.

From this brief introduction Maksik shifts to the summer of 1991 when Joe is twenty-one and all of the above facts occur. First, the “black tar” of bipolar disorder descends, then he meets Tess while bartending in a small Oregon town. Finally, his mother, Anne-Marie, kills a man after seeing him beat his wife and children. He leaves Oregon and Tess and joins his father in White Plain, Washington to be near the prison where his mother is serving a life sentence. He is resigned to a life of bartending, visiting his mother in prison and battling the black bird that claws his brain. Then Tess arrives and he’s not alone in any of it anymore.

Maksik imbues Shelter in Place with the atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest. The weight of the grey sky with its leaden clouds and encroaching forests of trees echoes the weight borne by each of the characters. Joe’s father draws it inward by becoming a Quaker and living a life of quietude while his mother explodes it outward with violent action. The pattern continues with Joe and Tess—he battling inwardly with his mental illness, but she, having befriended his mother, convinced that beliefs must be acted upon. Until they are and then

…she was not the warrior she’d imagined herself to be. Nor was she the warrior she wanted my mother to be. And all of that manic enthusiasm, her obsession, her desire, was, all at once, gone.

The weight of their actions is too real and Tess disappears, leaving Joe to once again deal with his demons alone. In this way, Shelter in Place is an odd title for the story of a man who doesn’t have shelter either within himself or without.

Through the kind of soft prose that strikes at hard truths Maksik explores the burdens carried by each of his characters. For both Tess and Anne-Marie, there are the consequences of actions—Tess left unsure of who she is anymore and Anne-Marie, who enters prison as a crusader for abused women and children and reduced to a life of inaction in a cell. But it is in writing Joe, with the mind that cannot find shelter, that Maksik hits hardest. Because as he tells us in the beginning, not all questions can be answered.

four-stars