Steven Croft reviews William Walsh’s novel Lakewood

William Walsh’s Lakewood
Give Me Love (Please): A Review of Lakewood by William Walsh

       In 1973 the United States signed the Paris Peace Accords ending the Vietnam War, the US Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade, OPEC drastically decreased oil production, Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match, and, in the new novel Lakewood (TouchPoint Press, 2022) by William Walsh, Robert English began "The Summer Journal of Robert English" on May 14th.  In this journal Robert English will be a close observer of American politics and culture, but his goal is to be an even closer observer of himself.  Robert's reaction to emotional bombshells is to flee -- perhaps learned from his parents -- and at nineteen Robert has recently fled: from Atlanta, GA, to Lakewood, NY, (on Chatauqua Lake) where he is attending college.  This summer is an attempt to ground himself and live more deliberately as he focuses on his life and what he hopes to make of it.  Another diarist once installed himself by a pond for a similar reason, but Thoreau was fittingly called a "hermit saint," and Robert English will prove to be neither, so, except for a Thoreau-like proclivity for making lists, this comparison works only for Robert's diaristic beginning.

       As the novel begins Robert is housesitting in the lakeside home of his history professor, Dr. Laighles, who has gone with his wife Emily to Europe for the summer to research a book on Ireland during WWII.  We learn on the second page of the diary that Robert has a specific reason for taking this house-sitting job that is crucially important to him: "Terrace Avenue—this was my childhood home, before Kimberly died. Once Emily and Dr. Laighles left, I walked the halls of my old house to explore, opening every door...".  Eleven years ago his twin sister died at the house in a freak accident, and his parents chose to sell the house and everything in it and move far away.  They don't know Robert is house-sitting, and he leads his mother to believe he is working an internship at the college for the summer and living in a hotel.  We begin to see Robert is prone to misdemeanor ethical lapses if they will get him what he really wants; earlier, Robert writes, when Dr. Laighles asked in class in an off-hand way if anyone would be interested in staying in his house for the summer, Robert went to his office to find Dr. Laighles gone and a note in his box from Mary Cox accepting the job -- Robert steals her note, replacing it with his own acceptance.  He tells us his parents, who never want to see the house again, would be extremely upset if they knew he was there.  I think of a line from Harold Brodkey's short story "The State of Grace": "And mothers and fathers were dim and far away -- too far away ever to reach in and touch the sore place and make it heal...".  Robert, unable to let go of the trauma of his sister's death, can no longer follow his parents' plan of avoidance and has come back to the very place of sorrow.  As Robert settles into the home, which includes taking care of the Laighles' two Saint Bernards, Harry and Bess, he finds evidence of his sister's presence everywhere.  Both their names carved with Popsicle sticks into a concrete walkway his father poured.  Her name signed with crayon on a column in the attic, signed again in the crawl space below the stairs which he finds while playing a hide-and-seek game with the dogs.  I think it is significant for this important element of Walsh's storyline that the word nostalgia is a derived composite of the Greek words for "return home" and "pain."

       With free reign, like a lone visitor in a museum, Robert spends days, weeks, carefully exploring every space in the house.  In his family's old piano room, he finds Dr. Laighles "has a real cool Motorola Stereo cabinet" with a jazz album and a Del-Tones album left out on it: "Using my skills of deduction and logic, I conclude Dr. Laighles likes the jazz, while Emily likes the surfer music.  I have no proof, but based on their personalities, I'm making a hypothesis."  Robert then makes a list -- one of numerous lists in the diary -- of his favorite songs on the albums.  We learn "Kimberly's old bedroom is locked," and that in the TV room there is "a 1962 World Series pinball machine...a baseball game with a bat instead of flippers."  Also, as he tells us of these investigative discoveries, the temporal compression of each day is expanded by more and more memories of the past he adds into the diary.  We learn he dropped the idea of attending the University of Georgia when he found out his best friend had sex with Robert's girlfriend on the night of their high school graduation, after Robert had refused her sexual advances because they did not have protection, and gone home.  He tells us he has received seven letters from Ashley so far which he refuses to open and read.  In a short time, though, these solitary musings will be interrupted by the appearance at the Laighles' house of a character who will stand third in order of emotional importance to Robert in the novel, Mike, who sits down uninvited on the front steps to pet the dogs, asking in a kind of mumble-mouthed confusion if Steven is home: "'No, it’s just me and the dogs. Who’s Steven?'....His name is Michael Forest, Mike. Something is wrong with him. He’s retarded but doesn’t look retarded. He’s slow and has a hard time getting his words out."  Mike tells Robert Steven is Dr. Laighles's son, and in his first phone call from Dr. Laighles from Europe, the professor mentions: "'A friend of ours might stop by if he hasn’t already.' / 'Yeah, I’ve met him. Mike, right?' / 'Great. Great. About Mike,' he paused, 'he wasn’t born retarded. He was injured in an accident several years ago and has irreversible brain damage.'"  Soon, Robert looks up Steven Laighles on the college library's new, and unique, IBM computer with a search function (reminding us the 1970s was the age of early modern computers) and is directed to an obituary among the stacks in the archived college newspaper:

Steven drowned in 1968 at Kinzua Dam in Allegheny State Park on Labor Day, just a year after the lake was at full capacity....the Chautauqua University Eagle showed his picture. He had blonde hair. It also mentioned Mike and how he tried to rescue Steven but was pulled under by the current. It did not provide any details into his injury other than saying that Edward Proudfoot, a Seneca Indian, drove by the scene and pulled Mike from the water.

As Mike returns to the house daily asking if Steven is home yet, Robert and Mike begin a friendship, playing World Series pinball -- which Mike is surprisingly good at -- and other games like chess which Mike is less skilled at in the beginning, but becomes amazingly good at later in the summer as he works at it.  They go on long trips with Mike on the back of Robert's motorcycle.  So far, we have gleaned a lot of things about Robert from his diary: he is a data nerd, analyzing all the national news, e.g., giving us the vicissitudes of Nixon's burgeoning troubles from the Watergate break-in, liking and analyzing sports, particularly baseball, but also letting us know he lacks physical confidence: at the drug store Robert buys five packs of baseball cards, and the pharmacist asks, "'You must like baseball?' / 'Yes, sir, but I can’t throw it straight to save my life.'" Robert absorbs popular culture of all kinds, e.g., listens to Casey Kasem's American Top 40 and makes lists of his favorite songs -- which he then narrows to his very favorites, like George Harrison's "Give Me Love" and The Carpenter's "Yesterday Once More," begins reading what he considers serious books, like Gravity's Rainbow, starts to teach himself to paint watercolor.  If the definition of a nerd is someone overly intellectual and socially unsure, Robert probably qualifies.  It is when he shows kind, if initially reluctant patience with Mike, that Robert wins the reader over to really liking him.

       Despite his demurral of first-time sex with his high school sweetheart, like all young men Robert is obsessed with sex.  Walsh the author showing us the precociously intellectual and analytical are just as vulnerable to its vital pulse of wanting, wanting, wanting.  Running into a female student named Caroline DeBauché (whom Robert had disparagingly described to a male classmate at the beginning of Lakewood as "The Ice Queen") at the college post office, he asks her out on a date, which he quickly, and slyly, shifts to a non-date.  She is back in town briefly to take a make-up exam to satisfy a previous year's "Incomplete.": "'Are you doing anything tonight?' / 'Yeah, studying. My test’s on Friday. I have two days to prepare.' / 'Let’s go see Paper Moon. It’s playing at The Lakewood Drive-In.' / 'I’m not going to the drive-in with you.' / 'Just come over for dinner. I’ll cook something up and I’ll quiz you. Bring your books.'"  And later at the Laighles' house in front of the fireplace:  "After studying, that’s when I made a move and kissed her. We started making out a little, but she stopped only after a minute of kissing. / 'Show me the house.'"  One of the things they find on their tour is Dr. Laighles' 1961 Corvette in the garage, and Robert says, "'Want to go for a spin?'  And with those six words, my world, my life, has been completely destroyed."  They drive around the lake making several casual stops, one to make out by the dock at Bemus Point: "Near the dock, we kissed under the moonlight, and for a moment, I imagined that more might happen later."  They continue on their drive while listening to the entirety of a brand-new album, Tubular Bells, on WJTN Radio.  And then the most spirited and memorable action in the book begins, with the sudden stochastic horror of the visitation in Hitchcock's movie The Birds:  "Once the music finished, Caroline randomly yelled, 'Don’t touch me. Ever!' / 'What are you talking about? I’m driving the car. I didn’t touch you.' / 'Don’t touch me!' / 'Hey, hey, stop screaming.' / 'I’ll scream my Goddamn head off if I want to. Don’t touch me.'"  Caroline physically assaults Robert with flailing arms, until, yelling at him, "'You tried raping me!'...she caught me in the upper jawbone with a closed fist. At the corner of Cowing and Winch Road, I lost control...".  Both are physically shaken up, bruised and bloodied as the car swerves off the road into a cornfield, which takes an hour for Robert to drive out of.  For me, metaphorically, it is like Robert is destined to hit the rocks Odysseus avoided by strapping himself to the mast, and I think of the short story "Escapes" by Joy Williams where a mother and daughter drive to a magician's show in their convertible, to have the mother suddenly and strangely crawl onto stage begging the magician preparing to cut his assistant in half with a chainsaw to cut her in half instead: "Her lipstick gone. Did she think she was in disguise, I wondered. 'But why not,' my mother said, 'to go and come back, that's what we want, that's why we're here and why we can't expect something to be done you can't expect us every day we get tired of showing up every day you can't get away with this forever....'"  This scene in Lakewood has that kind of iconic literary resonance -- and though not mentioned by Robert who would not know this, Walsh surely knows that Tubular Bells would become the signature music for the movie The Exorcist later that year.  Once Robert gets Caroline back to her hotel in the car that is now a rattletrap, Caroline screams from her bloodied face that she is not going to the hospital, Robert still saying, "I’m taking you to the hospital.” And her replying “I’m not going anywhere, except to the hotel to call my brother. You’re going to wish you’d never touched me."  This incident will hang over the novel's plot and Robert like an invisible trap door, until finally coming down on him later, after the coming weeks of almost pastoral bliss for him, with a vengeance.

       Robert hides the Corvette under a tarp, and worry over it will nag at him, but two weeks after the accident a very consequential event occurs that will push worry away as Robert's is mesmerized by a new and consuming focus: visiting the public library with Mike, he sees Annie for the first time and it is like the vision of a seraph: "Her hair slinking down her shoulders like a sheet of gold....'Mike, look at that girl', I said. 'Look.  Look.' / 'I see her.' / 'God she's pretty. She's absolutely gorgeous.'...I watched as she moved around the library without a clue in the world that she is a goddess, floating from place to place like an angel."  And Mike replies, "'That’s Annie.' / 'You know her?' / 'She’s a friend of mine.'"  Right away Mike introduces Robert to Annie, and soon brings her over to the Laighles' house: "9:50 p.m. Mike and Annie just left. Mike brought Annie over to the house unexpectedly. My nerves are still shaking because the woman I have fallen in love with has asked me over to her apartment tomorrow for dinner. Lord, what wonderful fate has come my way?" The friendly dating that begins the relationship grows into something much more over the course of the summer.  Annie is free-spirited, confident, and intelligent -- older than Robert, she will start a PhD in psychology in the fall.  On the night of their first dinner together, Annie shows Robert a portfolio of nude photos of herself she paid a photographer to take.  Viewing them, Robert -- who manages to keep to himself a titillation reminiscent of Eugene Jerome's at the end of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs -- says, "'Aren't you worried about people seeing you?'" And Annie replies: "'You're only the fifth person who's seen them. My sister and her friend have seen them, the photographer who took them, and my best friend in high school, who lives in New York City.  And now, you.'"  She goes on to assure Robert she is not so liberal-minded as having these photos taken might suggest:  "'That's just not the case.  I'm not like that at all.' / 'I wouldn't think that.' / 'I don't believe in fooling around until you're married.' / 'I've never thought about it too much,' I lied."  Also at this point in the novel, Robert takes a job at Chautauqua Indoor Advertising to help pay for the repair of the corvette, lucking into a job where he is paid to read recently published novels and write reports to be used as a means of influencing marketing.  His easy-going boss, Roy, challenges him to chess during work -- both are avid chess buffs -- and Roy even becomes a father-surrogate dispensing advice on life and women (which will become weirdly ironic late in the novel) over their chess board during long games.  Early in his journal, Robert wrote:

I fear being alone as I get older....I have no one else. Kimberly is gone. Ashley is out of my life. If my parents were gone, I wouldn't have anyone to spend Christmas with....Yes, even when I was younger, I always wanted to start a family early....I want a wife to love and who loves me...I want to be surrounded by people who love me.

Now, suddenly Robert is in the middle of a circle of friends that includes Annie, Mike, and eventually Roy and his family.  Picnics, camping, an idyllic outdoor Glen Campbell concert they all attend on the Fourth of July -- at the center of his new sense of contentment is Annie who slowly ameliorates the pain of Kimberly's death, which drew Robert back to Lakewood, with what is obviously love.

       Will the idyll of Robert's summer carry into the fall?  All summer he has given us daily empirical explanations of himself, writing, diligently working to perceive his personal truth, seeking to find his center in order to become aware of his ultimate goals.  All the while, there has been no "fourth wall": he anticipates the diary being read when he concludes it, even imagines the kind of person he would like to read it.  In his life he has been inclined to a self-serving soft ethics at times to get what he wants, but his diary is in part a confessional and a place where he is always as honest as he can be.  The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur called his famous "hermeneutic" structural analysis of written texts a “hermeneutics of suspicion” because discourse, he believed, both reveals and conceals something; and that, in interpreting a text, an analyst must move "from what is said to what is really talked about," i.e. to a more enlightened an intuitive understanding that goes beyond what is said.  It may be that we as readers will gain a more enlightened and intuitive understanding of what Robert really wants than he does?  Will the relationship between Robert and Annie progress easily into something long-lasting?  I will just say that this a serious novel and Walsh's primary intent is character study.  By the end of the novel the characters are connected by fate in a way reminiscent of Dickens.  When the nightmare date with Caroline DeBauché reenters the story -- like the birds in Hitchcock's movie -- Mike will heroically save Robert from being killed, something he was unable to do for his best friend Steven.  When Robert finally finds the key to Kimberly's room as he continues to search the house for her memory, he discovers that it became Steven Laighles' room and is full of pictures of Annie and Steven together.  Annie -- at least we as readers can perceive -- is allowing herself to love again, and when she initiates making her relationship with Robert a sexual one, it means something deeply serious for her.

       Lakewood is a good story, is a serious story, and is an illuminating period story of the early 1970s like Huckleberry Finn is of the late 1830s.  And its story does not end here.  In the press release for the novel, Walsh's publisher tells us this is the first book of a trilogy.  At the end of reading, I am very eager, as I think anyone who reads the novel will be, for the second book, very eager to see where the story goes next.  I recommend Lakewood.

Steven Croft

William Walsh is Director of Creative Writing at Reinhardt University.  He is a known poet and a very well-known interviewer of famous writers.  Here is one of my favorite interviews
he did with Rita Dove.

A US Army combat veteran, Steven Croft lives happily on a barrier island off the coast of Georgia on a property lush with vegetation and home to various species of birds and animals. His poems have appeared in Liquid Imagination, The Five-Two, Ariel Chart, Eunoia Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, Synchronized Chaos, and other places, and have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net.

William Walsh’s Lakewood is available here from Touchpoint Press.