Reviewed By Chris Harding Thornton
- University of Nebraska Press (2021)
- 336 pages
I have a nearly unshakable compulsion for reading novels in a single sitting—regardless of page count. For many years, the sole exception was One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I could pick up and set down, never fully leaving the world Gabriel García Márquez created.
Steven Wingate’s The Leave-Takers is the second novel to break my binge-reading habit. The narrative’s timeline spans only a pair of seasons, but like his prose poetry collection, Thirty-One Octets, Wingate’s newest work could also be easily subtitled Incantations and Meditations. Nearly each page of The Leave-Takers features a line or paragraph that necessitates pause, some moment of dense stillness and existential contemplation. In one instance, a character considers the splinters and cracks in his mental universe: “you could look through them one second and see all the way down to the secret of life, then the next you’d see nothing but emptiness. And once you taste that, it might be all you ever want.”
These pauses for contemplation exist in tension with one of the book’s two main characters. Despite a barely manageable painkiller addiction, Laynie Jackman, a painter in her early thirties, prefers moving at breakneck speed. She darts across the country “taking leave of the dead” by dispersing the belongings of lost loved ones. She stashes mementos on gas station shelves, in motel room pillowcases, and on the occasional park bench. These gestures are acts of reverence, but they’re also Laynie’s attempt to outrun the ghosts of her mother, fiancé, and miscarried children.
The single person Laynie cannot outrun is Jacob Nassedrine. Their paths continually and eerily intersect. They first meet at a Los Angeles art opening, where one of Jacob’s sculptures bears an uncanny resemblance to Laynie. This initial encounter launches them into a relationship that ends with a burned marriage license, but even after this, fate isn’t done with them. When Laynie’s road trip to mourn the death of her father leads her to Hot Springs, South Dakota, she finds Jacob partaking in an annual ritual called “Deathiversary Day.”
Like Laynie, Jacob suffers from grief and an ongoing pill addiction. But unlike Laynie, he stays put on “Cocklebur Farm” near Clark, South Dakota. There, he clutches his own ghosts closely. One room is a shrine to the dead: his mother and father, lost to a violent murder-suicide; his aunt and uncle who took him in and left him the farm; and his only brother, Daniel, who intentionally overdosed on heroin.
The characters’ sorrow may manifest differently, but its depth is shared so intimately, the two can’t help but cling to each other. Once their relationship is rekindled, Laynie teaches Jacob the art of leave-taking, only to find that dispersing mementos cannot forestall more loss. Their addictions, which both numb the grief and conjure ghosts like fever dreams, threaten to divide them. But like the cocklebur in the field, a stubborn persistence pulses through them to try, again and again, to make a life together.
While much of this sounds dark, The Leave-Takers offers a larger portrait of life, interspersing glimmers of light, love, and laughter. The banter between the couple and their small cast of eccentric friends lightens the characters’ burdens, and well-timed lines balance inner turmoil with subtle humor. For example, in the wake of Jacob’s violent reaction to a recent trauma, Laynie stands in the kitchen, debates what food might lift his mood, and reflects on feeling “absolutely and finally married. One hundred percent tied to this person she could never fully comprehend. It was as mysterious as death.” After a beat, the reader catches a breath of levity: “Figgy goat cheese, that was his favorite thing.”
Amid the characters’ struggles, failures, and elations, Wingate weaves imagery packed with metaphorical heft: a Bostonian “widow’s walk” Jacob built in the barn, the baptismally haunted waters of Hot Springs, bronze renderings of the couple’s lost children. Even the story’s point of view adds layers of meaning, moving fluidly between Laynie and Jacob and cementing their connections to one another and the landscape that engulfs them.
As much a meditation on place as on love and loss, the book depicts the landscape as a vastness capable of eclipsing the self in a manner both “freeing and dangerous”—a vista overwhelmed only by the “dirty mercury sky” above. The nook of South Dakota portrayed in The Leave-Takers is as tangible a character as Laynie and Jacob are, and it ultimately becomes an inspiration of art—both for the book’s characters and for Wingate himself.
The Leave-Takers is a book to be savored, a novel you will dwell in during the moments you are away from it, suspended in its incantations and contemplations.
Chris Harding Thornton, a seventh-generation Nebraskan, holds an MFA from the University of Washington and a PhD from the University of Nebraska, where she has taught literature and writing courses. She has worked as a quality assurance overseer at a condom factory, a jar-lid screwer at a plastics plant, a closer at Burger King, a record store clerk, an all-ages club manager, and a PR writer. Pickard County Atlas is her first novel.