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It’s hard to know what to make of Below Torrential Hill, a new novella by Philly author Jonathan Koven. The book is prefaced by quotes from Hayao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away and Wallace Stevens; the first chapter by Clarice Lispector and a bit of South African “Bushman” (Khoikhoi) folklore. It opens with “The night Tristen’s mother first heard the voices in the kitchen sink, a comet blazed in the sky … spreading a wave of guilt, wrath and sorrow across Torrential Hill.”
Are we in store for magic realism, or perhaps something in the New Weird genre, revealing the deep secrets of a suburban community? Unfortunately, no. Instead, the reader is invited to live mostly inside the prolix—and often drunk—mind of 16-year-old Tristen as he discovers, in the days around Christmas, that he is not the world. In other words, Below Torrential Hill is a new entry in the hoary tradition of overly-sensitive white (always white) boys and their problems.
Early on, it seems as if events of a cosmic nature are in store: voices from the sink, a comet which “knew of Tristen,” streetlights which explode at emotionally wrought moments. Strong negative emotions are attributed to inanimate objects—the comet, a wine glass, walls. A meteorite crashes into the lake, unnoticed but foreshadowing. But then nothing much seems to happen, except that Tristen keeps drinking and trying to persuade Ava she’s the love of his life, around long, image-jammed paragraphs, in chapters headed by more epigraphs: Rilke, Calvino, the Upanishads—alerting the reader that this is deep.
Eventually, Tristen falls down a hill and seems to enter the meteorite for a surreal journey. The novella ends with a seeming reconciliation between Tristen, his mother, and stepfather, and an acceptance of Ava’s departure for college. What the comet knew of Tristen, or why he was of interest to it, is never disclosed.
A work short on plot can be rewarding for its texture, such as depth of characterization. But who is Tristen? We learn surprisingly little about him. He lives with his single mother, Lucy; has an estranged stepfather, Lave; and his adored father died several years ago. His best friend Ava was his girlfriend for a week but broke up with him recently. He sneaks wine from Lucy’s endless stash (each of them seems to go through a bottle or more a day).
Tristen, Lucy, and Ava live on Coldview Street, on top of Torrential Hill, a ridge between a nameless small town and a nameless city (only described as an “urban sinkhole”), with a forest and lake in between. Perhaps this is an attempt at a universal feeling, but this is the universality of suburban, straight, white America. Universality is more easily achieved by specificity of place and time, not vagueness, and it should be clear by now that life on Coldview Street is anything but universal, and the barrage of epigraphs asks for comparisons that do not flatter the author.
Beyond Torrential Hill is not without merits. Koven is also apparently a poet. Several passages throughout the novella would be powerful prose poems on their own; of the writers quoted in the book, the strongest kinship seems to be to Rilke. Two short chapters told from the perspectives of Lucy and Lave are tightly written and effective in their portrayal of the generational impact of trauma. Too often, however, Koven’s love of imagery and metaphor seems deployed solely for its own sake, and Below Torrential Hill feels like extended sound and fury signifying not much at all for this reader.
What, When, Where
Below Torrential Hill. By Jonathan Koven. Middletown, DE: Electric Eclectic Pocketbook, December 3, 2021. 190 pages, paperback; $16.00. Get it on Amazon.
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