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Red Hook, Red Herring

Visitation Street

by Ivy Pochoda

Dennis Lehane Books/Ecco, 2013

When a story begins with a death or disappearance, the storyteller must make that event relevant to an uninitiated audience that lacks any familiarity with the people in the fictional world. This is why the first episode of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks is such an achievement. The devastation of the town’s residents is somehow moving, not alienating. The viewer feels like he has accidentally walked into a funeral, the beauty of which compels him to stay and listen to the stories of the dead.

Generally, Visitation Street, the second novel by Ivy Pochoda, misses this difficult mark. It is interesting in fits and starts, but it finally left me wondering whose fault it was that I was bored. Was it me? Was I simply too much of an ass to sit still and read 300 pages that a talented writer had composed painstakingly over several years? Was it some hidden predisposition that I was performing unbeknownst to myself? Why couldn’t I enjoy the fruits of Pochoda’s obvious labor?

It is tough to feel something when someone is telling you to feel it. This is basically the experience of reading Visitation Street. The novel tells the story of June and Val, two teenaged best friends in Red Hook, Brooklyn, who decide one unfortunate evening to ride a ramshackle raft into the bay. An errant currant grabs June and leaves Val to wash up alone on the garbage-strewn shoreline. She is discovered there by Jonathan, a musically inclined drunk, who soon realizes that nothing will ever be the same.

Pochoda’s cast of characters includes Fadi, a Lebanese man who runs a bodega, and Cree, a young man who becomes the chief suspect in June’s disappearance. Fadi edits and publishes a charming local newspaper out of his storefront. Cree hops around the dark corners of Red Hook reeling from his father’s death. All of the characters fade in and out of each other’s scenes like cardboard setpieces.

Pochoda, a former professional squash player whose first book was The Art of Disappearing, insists time and time again that we should care deeply about the sturm und drang of her characters’ lives. She enacts this insistence with an at times quite heavy hand: “Staring at the piece confirms Cree’s suspicion that nowhere will ever belong to him. At home he will be harassed by the police until the missing girl is found. And now his secret places are being invaded.” This is a cringe-inducingly weak violation of the commandment to show, not tell. All of the information in that paragraph is already clear from the preceding text—why did Pochoda feel the need to state unequivocally the chapter’s major plot points? The author seems unwilling to let her characters stand on their own two feet, without the domineering prop of narrative voice.

Val’s erratic behavior, ostensibly a product of her feelings of culpability for June’s disappearance and guilt at having survived, never really rings true. She cries spontaneously, runs out of the church during June’s memorial service, dives into the fetid Brooklyn waters, and embraces passionately the man who follows her, all while italicized mantras like, “If Monique sings for June, June will come back,” and, “If she swims to shore, June will come home,” rear their melodramatic heads in the middle of the page. The italics seem to invite the sort of breathy, hyper-poetic tone of voice that finally hobbles this novel.

But Visitation Street could have been good! Parts of it certainly are. The reader gets a great sense of the vibrant dynamics the community of Red Hook comprises. The characters’ voices are appropriately differentiated and unique. They are colorful and strange in the way lives in cities are, replete with the requisite transvestitism, alcohol abuse, and kind of offensive-seeming Spanglish. Most of the ingredients needed for a city-story stew are ready and prepped.

In the end, however, the novel is bogged down irremediably by its assertion of its own grave profundity. Visitation Street is a sometimes entertaining, often boring, sometimes overwritten, and often weak text. Maybe I could never really get into it because, at the end of the day, it was not very good.

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