From Eliot to Indie Rock: a Review of Thomas Calder's Debut Novel, The Wind Under the Door (Unsolicited Press) 2021
We know by now that the business of book writing is anything but solitary. Our influences and snippets of memories, both real and imagined, are co-conspirators in the act. Friends, editors, and critics help mold and guide the piece towards (hopefully) its greatest form. In fact many artists would argue that all art, regardless of medium, is referential.
In his epic poem, The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot famously produced a collage of references, allusions, and notations; many provided by the author himself, many more requiring a qualified professional to guide you and translate the Latin. Written against the backdrop of post-WWI Europe, The Waste Land describes ruinous landscapes overrun with vermin and rot. We are in the aftermath of devastation, beyond the denouement. What is left? What can be salvaged? Perhaps this is a motive for the poem’s styling as a linguistic mosaic, as if each phrase were a found object, picked from the rubble. Extracted from its original context and reapplied, it gains one anew. And if it doesn’t? “Just let the language wash over you,” my Modernism professor advised, cluing us into the idea of an impressionistic poem. Some details are there to capture a mood.
Thomas Calder’s ambitious debut novel, The Wind Under the Door delivers on its promise of allusion. Artist Ford Carson has long lost his creative mojo, but is still puttering along, hustling design work while he works on his real projects: collages based on music. One of the pieces Ford is working on is inspired by the album, The Suburbs (from Canadian indie rock band, Arcade Fire) which is in turn inspired by, yes, The Waste Land.
But while The Waste Land is arguably a poet’s poem, Calder’s novel unfolds with addictive immediacy. Opening the novel at a Halloween party draws us into Ford’s disorientation. We learn on page two that Ford has been enamored of a woman named Grace for the past month. They met on his fortieth birthday; she is “not yet thirty,” and unhappily married to the enigmatic, occasionally violent J.R. The scene is wild and tantalizing––people are wasted and wearing costumes, and Grace is somewhere fighting with her semi-estranged husband, who was not supposed to be there. Ford’s friend says to him, “You ever get the feeling like nothing’s quite how it’s supposed to be?” (Calder 23). Ford and Grace make love that night. The next day, who should visit his art studio, but her husband.
The itching sense of wrongness is a thick mood throughout Wind, where inversions prove ominous, but characters still attempt blasé attitudes. Ford is preoccupied with his own sense of personal ruin/midlife crisis. His son, Bailey is about to visit him for his eighteenth birthday, and Ford is dreading it. He wonders, like Eliot’s characters, what led him to this place?
I initially wondered if I’d entered into a middle-aged take on an early-aughts romantic dramedy, a kind of Asheville version of Garden State (Pine State?). We have a disaffected male character, an artist inspired by lush indie rock albums and Modernist poetry, with an impulsive, and alluringly unavailable love interest. But whereas that brand might look cute on a twenty-something beta male, the world of Wind makes it clear that it’s not so cute on Ford. While he courts existential anguish, bathing in bitter nostalgia, other people are simply trying to get on with their lives. Indeed, the morose undercurrent in the novel is less symbolic than confrontational. The divorced dad gets no sympathy, even from himself, and no one can save him.
Ford experiences his personality as a mishmash (or collage) of old patterns and assumptions. He is desperate to maintain the youthful ability to glide through chaos and uncertainty, yet increasingly bewildered by the passing of time. Meanwhile, the characters around him are in the midst of heavy change: his ex-wife, Emily is pregnant with her new husband; his son is on the cusp of adulthood, and presumably beyond the grasp of parenting. Even his erotic dancer friend, Noire, is moving on. And yet Ford’s sense is that they have all managed to develop in ways he has failed to.
In fact, in contrast to the numbed stasis of the Modernist voice (or an over-medicated Zach Braff), Ford pulses with jealous energy. His son has grown up with another man as his father. He is still in love with his ex-wife, though they divorced a decade ago. He is jealous of people who are moving forward in life. It is horrible to realize you’re wishing for people you love to be brought down a peg, just so you can feel needed. Like a child, “He only knew how to stop hurt by making others hurt,” a line that will likely haunt him well beyond the story (222).
But unlike her would-be manic pixie counterparts, your Portmans and your Deschanels, Grace is indelibly marked by adult experience and trauma. In keeping with the tone of this bleak dramedy, Ford and Grace have a darkly humorous meet-cute. Ford is riding a wave of suicidal ideation at a hotel bar on his birthday. Calder writes, “Ford was still considering death when he spotted Grace” (45). Ford’s thought of death manifests as a bird that then crashes into the side of her head. He has to put the bird out of its misery. Later, on one of their dates, Grace takes Ford to an amusement park where they board a roller coaster; the attendants know her, and are surprised she is only riding once this time. “Grace leaned into Ford. He anticipated her tongue’s wet kiss inside his ear. Instead, she shouted, ‘I’m so fucking depressed’” (83). Not exactly his “saving grace.” It’s far from a romp through Ikea, but perhaps closer to primal screaming into a rainstorm.
When he arrives, Bailey is his father’s perfect foil: all ruddy confidence and bravado, knocking back drinks and causing a scene wherever he’s taken. Perhaps it is one way to assert his adult-ness, or endear himself to his father, who once showed up to Bailey’s 8th grade Career Day drunk and picked a fight with the stepdad. Together, the two appear to bookend the stereotypical adolescent male mind. Bailey asserts his identity through wry machismo and risk-taking to impress/repel his father. Ford moodily recites lines from The Waste Land to his ex-wife over the phone, or ignores his son in the car while furiously texting Grace. When both men are forced to put a wounded animal out of its misery, at different points, Bailey’s relative calm under pressure reminds Ford that his son might be more of a man than his old man.
For as desolate as Ford’s emotional landscape may be, Calder has his fun, especially in ensemble scenes when he gets to “do different voices,” as it were. Just as Eliot acted as ventriloquist for the spirits dusting through TWL, Calder speaks through characters as diverse as a local pawnshop owner, a fifteen year-old Lolita, and a yokel erotic dancer. Ford privately names his ex-wife’s new husband, Shark Man for his demonstrative jawline, and cringes when he looks up his band’s Myspace page. Pranks abound, as do knowing reflections on the creative process.
The tone in Wind is alternately jocular and darkly existential, and occasionally pitched towards a devastating turn. On other occasions, richly-painted scenes, lengthy monologues, and gestural descriptions felt patched in, as if to fill a void on the canvas. One could easily write a review of The Wind Under the Door focusing on the experiences and stories of the non-heteronormative characters, including Grace’s homosexual experiences as a teenager. Indeed, the concerns in Wind are varied and dare I say, collaged, the way they overlap and juxtapose in a non-didactic sequence that invites collaboration of individual perspective. What I see may not be what you see, therefore, “let the language wash over you.” With its caustic humor and complex, believable characters, The Wind Under the Door is a beguiling first novel from a talented new writer that holds the promise of much more to come.