“Barbara Monier’s breathtaking prose is put to full use in this story of intergenerational care and violence. A must-read for anyone who has ever been, or had, a mother.” —Molly Hales, author of Vital Ties
I AM OFFERING A FREE ADVANCED READER COPY to readers who will post a review on Amazon (and Goodreads, if you do the Goodreads thing) IN ADVANCE OF THE OCTOBER 9 PUBLICATION DATE.
In Barbara Monier’s third novel, a family crisis erupts when a fifteen-year-old becomes pregnant and decides to keep the baby.
Madeline serves as the primary protagonist of PUSHING THE RIVER, and the story is told largely through her eyes. As background and insight into her character – how she came to “push the river” – the unfolding action is interspersed with Madeline’s memories of her own mother.
As the book opens, Madeline describes her house as an empty shell inhabited by ghosts. She has been living alone for years, keeping to a few rooms, surrounded by the possessions of her ex-husband and grown children. Over the course of four months, (cont.) people accumulate in the household one by one — including Madeline’s new love interest, who unexpectedly shows up carrying grocery bags full of his clothes.
Mixing farce and fear in the equal measures that fill most lives, Monier follows her characters as they stumble through love, hope, and familial trust in pursuit of fruitful, fulfilled lives.
HERE’S SOME EARLY PRAISE FOR THE BOOK:
“A very powerful book about the cascading benefits and injuries of the relationships of women across generations. A great study of a character, and her efforts to hold things together amid constant chaos.” — John Manos, author of Dialogues of a Crime
“…with an eye for detail and a love of language, this is a novel about how women pass along wisdom, the relationship between mothers and daughters, the power of mothers to embarrass. The monstrous. The methodical.” — Jim Petersen, freelance journalist, writer, storyteller, author of The Century of Sex
“Like walking past a collection of fine impressionist art.” –— Clark Elliott, author of The Ghost in My Brain
“Beautifully written! Entertaining and innovative, a jewel of a tight story that unfolds powerfully in episodes. An embarrassment of riches. — Rita Dragonette, author of the upcoming The Fourteenth of September
“I couldn’t put it down. So many stories, so much emotion. Two-word review: loved it!” — Janis Post, Chicago artist
CONTACT ME FOR YOUR FREE COPY (send as a downloadable .pdf)
The one from the basement started it. He crawled up from his underground lair, from the smell of epoxy that he uses for projects, from the array of fluorescent vests that he wears to work. He took up residence on the stairs. Early in the morning, he was on the stairs. Late into the night, still on the stairs.
Others began to gather. I never knew where they came from. There would just be another voice, a conversation, coming from the stairs. Or I would come home, and have to step around and between others, bodies leaning this way and that as I made my way through their habitat.
I didn’t want to hear them, tried to not hear them; but they were on the stairs. There was really no escape.
Sometimes I would take a long walk go for coffee invent an errand visit a friend drive to the lakefront, all with the hope that when I returned, the stairs would be a dazzling open space — no residents. No clutter and detritus of citizens who had created their own fiefdom, on my stairs.
In the evenings, the sound of the citizenry would swell like a great ocean storm. Still, occasional single voices would ring out like a carillon bell, random snippets that made no sense and created ripples of unsettledness: “ …had to escape my marriage in the cover of darkness…” “…heard you can’t ever get rid of that smell, no matter what you do…” “No, no, that wasn’t the time I got shot; that was a…”
The voices stop, a crashing silence. A million eyes turn to me.
“Hey, how ya doing?”
“Doing great, Jason. You?”
“You’re always gonna be lonely, you know that, right?”
That was the voice inside of her head. That was how it spoke to her – as if another version of herself was sitting in a chair, a few feet away from her, addressing her as “you” from a supposed outside, objective perspective.
She thought of the voice as a separate person. She thought that person was pretty much a snarky little bitch a great deal of the time. Although, to be fair, she also duly noted when the voice took on the role of a vigilant cheerleader. She would leap onto the chair she normally sat on, throw her arms in the air, and fervently exclaim “Good job!”
She didn’t know if all of this was exceptionally odd, or if every single other person who had ever lived had experienced the exact same thing. It was not the kind of thing people usually spoke of. “Hey, does the voice inside of your head speak to you in the first person or the second, or perhaps even the third? Is the voice kind, critical, or frighteningly neutral?” She could not remember a single social gathering in which this topic had come up.
“So, as I was saying: you are always going to be lonely. It is your legacy.”
Sometimes, it was not entirely clear if the voice was being a snarky little bitch, or a compassionate companion.
Art: Frida Kahlo
PUSHING THE RIVER — my third novel, set for release this October by Amika Press — currently lay in the trusty and capable hands of their graphic designer/production person Sarah Koz. If you are a writer yourself, and you are reading this, you know exactly what this means – that I am wandering around the various circles of Marketing Hell in a bleary daze, waffling between dutiful determination and dejected drudgery (and stooping to the lower depths of ill-advised alliteration).
How to bring the FUN back into writing – that has been the challenge I have posed to myself. And as I cast around with the beginning of the beginning stages of Writing a New Novel, I have been “trying out” various characters, almost in the same way a director might audition actors. Here follows a character who, out of the blue, inhabited me and began to tell his story:
First time I was over at Bert’s place, he yelled at me right through the screen door. “YO!” He yells, “come on IN.” Didn’t get up or nothing, just hollered. I was a little shook by that, to tell you the truth, cause all I could see was nothing – just like total blackness on the other side of the door, that’s how dark it was inside. I sort of followed the sounds, the music and rustling and all, down this hall til I could make out Bert like some dim faraway spirit.
Bert was sitting in the nicest chair, meaning the one whose stuffing was sprouting out of big gashes in both arms, and had seat cushion that didn’t even fit in the frame any more – that’s how caddywhompus and old and tore up it was; still, it was a damn sight better than any other place to sit in the room. Bert’s own dad, in fact, was sitting on the arm of what must have once been a couch. I figured it was his dad, because I knew Bert lived with him and because the guy on the arm of the chair was a lot older than anybody we hung around with. Anyway, Bert was sitting in the quote nicer chair, which I also thought was a little weird, because I mean, come on, it was his dad.
Once my eyes started to adjust to the near-darkness, I could make out that Bert was rolling a joint on his lap, using a greasy old magazine to hold his paraphernalia. I looked at his dad, and back at Bert, and Bert looked up for the first time and seemed to register that I was there, also for the first time, in the middle of this living room, I guess it was, while he was rolling a joint and shooting the shit with his dad.
“Oh, hey,” Bert said.
Man, I have never before felt like a stick-up-my-ass, stick-in-the-mud conventional, conservative prick, but I’m suddenly feeling all disapproving. Jesus, the one time my dad wanted to prove that he was as open-minded as the next guy, and to demonstrate it he was going to go get a marijuana cigarette that he’d been given by a friend ages before, and that he’d been keeping all of this time, and wouldn’t it be fun to get it right now, at Thanksgiving, and pass it around the table before dessert and coffee. I thought I was going to seriously lose my shit, partly because, needless to say, I was already high due to spending Thanksgiving with the fam in the first place. And when my aunt said, “Do we have to share the same one? I really think I’d like my own,” then, really, that’s just a Twilight Zone-type situation you can only hope comes to a swift and relatively painless end.
So, yeah, I’m feeling kinda judgy of Bert for taking the best chair in the room and for rolling a doob right in front of his old man and not thinking a thing of it, and also feeling pissed at myself for feeling judgy in the first place, and like of jeez, who knew, turns out I’m just a regular old middle-class honky white boy right along with the rest of them. So I’m kinda testy when I say to Bert, “I thought we were having a party here, man.”
“What do you think I’m doing here?” Bert says, holding up the doob, which is just about the size of one those small little cigars. “I’m getting ready!” He says this with some element of triumph. “Already mixed up the punch.” He gestures towards the fridge, which is, in fact, not very far behind him in this same room. “Grain alcohol and grape juice.” And he adds, with a giant ass smile, “Ohhhh, yeahhhhhh!”
I was living in a space that was approximately 4’ x 10’, with a ceiling of the usual height. During the daytime, I would put my feet on the floor and gaze out the window. At night, I put my legs up and my upper body down, rearranging the pillows so there would be one for my head. I would close my eyes, facing away from the windows, and sometimes I would sleep. For the first few nights, I pulled the drapes closed, blocking out the lights from the enormous construction project as well as the blazingly-lit buildings that surrounded my location in all directions. By the fourth night, I stopped closing the shades, finding the idea of the lights gleaming just behind my head to be strangely comforting, a presence I wanted to maintain. Even with the sense of being immersed in a constructed reality – my own personal Truman Show – the lights of this Stepford world flickered just as prettily.
In a city known for its unreasonable hills, perennial fog, and enchanting Victorian architecture, my couch home existed in an area that lay completely outside the farthest bounds of expectation. It was, in other words, completely flat, continually drenched in blinding, bright California sun, and so utterly brand new that the majority of the area was a cacophony of rebar and beams and gridwork.
I knew that I would awaken the following day well before the natural light of morning flooded the room. Sometime between 5:30 and 6:30 am, a voice would pierce the pre-dawn by saying, simply, “I’m awake.” This would be followed by complete silence – unusually complete, for the general layout of the area made for an absence of the routine sounds of early morning, such as birds chirping, dogs barking, a stirring of the natural world. Perhaps ten to fifteen minutes later, once again, “I’m awake.” The tone was neutral, not pressed, or irritated, or perplexed at the lack of response – simply a statement made into the dark void. Then silence once again. Ten minutes later, when the voice returned, there was a difference. Factors had been weighed. Conclusions had been drawn.
Unable to reconcile the possibility that the voice may have been heard, but not responded to, the conclusion was that the voice must not have been heard in the first place. Thus, when the voice cried out again, it was outstandingly loud, and crisply clear, and delivered in the slow, exaggerated way that we often speak to people who are hard of hearing, or have a different native language, or whom we are openly dissing by acting like they are total cretins. “I AM AWAKE. I AM READY TO GET OUT OF MY BED.”
The brand new fake wood floors muffle every iota of sound. There are no footsteps, no shuffling scraping warnings.
A moment later, I open my eyes. A very small person stands two feet from my face. He holds a spray bottle in his mouth, his lips closed around the nozzle while the bottle hangs down.
“You’re starting with the saxophone today, I see,” I say to him.
“Saxophone first. Then tennis racket banjo.”
“What song are you playing?” I ask him.
“Bump.” He says. “After that: Chick Habit.”
And with the naming of his two favorite songs from his most favorite band – a Chicago Punk Marching Band – my day with my 2-year-old grandson begins.
Then there was the whole Grand Canyon thing.
On the way back from California, the long, dust-bitten journey slouching toward Pennsylvania, my parents decided we should stop at some natural wonders along the way. Death Valley. Joshua Tree. The Painted Desert. My mother maintained a hawk-like vigilance as she continually scanned the landmark scenery through the car window. She wore sunglasses, very dark green ones. Wearing glasses always caused her to hold her mouth funny, as if that were completely essential to keeping the glasses in place. Every so often her hand shot out and grazed my father’s arm. “Stop the car!”
The words came out with palpable enthusiasm; but it was, nonetheless, a command. The second the car came to a full stop – amid a great spray of gravel and dust – my mother leapt out the door. She stood by the car, with her hands planted on her hips and her feet wide apart, surveying the scene. Around her neck hung her still camera; wrapped tightly around her wrist was the thin, worn shoelace cord of her wind-up 8mm movie camera.
It seemed to take her a minute to remember that the other three of us were there. She swung the top half of her body around and looked at my brother and me still sitting in the back seat as if our folly could not be grasped. We shuffled along behind her dutifully, slowly, willful in our disinterest.
My father stayed by the car. He lit a cigarette, and smoked it as if it was a great chore, but one that must be done.
My mother knew a lot about a lot, which of course made me suspicious. How can you go to all these different places, and the same one person knows so much stuff about all the trees, and the flowers, and the cactuseses, and the birds, and on and on, every single place you go. Plus, my father staying by the car and not even coming along to see these great sights added considerably to my suspicion. If this stuff was so wondrous and important, why would he want to stay by the car and miss it!
Way before we got to the Grand Canyon, I was pretty sure my mother was just making stuff up. So by the time she was making exuberant wide gestures while talking about time, and a river, and layers of rock, and millions of years, millions and millions of years — I just felt sad and confused. My neighbor Patsy had already told me about the whole world being made in just seven short days, well six really, cause God took
one day off to rest. She had learned this at church, and this story was from God himself. They said so at church, a Presbyterian one, but my other neighbor Carrie was an actual Catholic; and Carrie confirmed
this was, without question, the truth.
I felt a little better when my brother and I were allowed to feed some peanuts to the chipmunks that were running around everywhere. I was scared they would bite me, but they didn’t, and their teeny little claws felt creepy and good all at the same time when they crawled into my hand to get the nut. I had to keep very, very still. I felt like there were my personal friends.
But back in the car, as we drove away from the Grand Canyon, there was a whirl going on inside of me. Kind of like when you make those whirly paintings at carnivals, the ones where you squirt bright, beautiful colors from ketchup bottles, and then the whole thing spins around, and you think it’s going to be so so pretty; but it’s a mess. An ugly, dark mess.
Why would my own mother tell such whoppers?
3:48 am. I am not certain if I was already awake. It is possible that I was, as I sleep lightly and wake up many times each night. Perhaps I was in the middle of a dream. Perhaps the sound injected itself into the dream, becoming a part of it. This happens often as well; the real and the imagined blur and blend and intermingle themselves.
My nighttime wakings are often accompanied by the sound of my refrigerator, as my bedroom lies right off the kitchen, and it is most certainly one of the loudest refrigerators in the history of the appliance. Of course I could close my bedroom door; but I prefer it open. I look forward to hearing the sounds of my apartment, and noting the different levels of quiet, for the few seconds before I fall back asleep. Besides, the phenomenon of my refrigerator never ceases to fascinate me. I can hardly believe how invasive the sound seems when I read in my bed before sleep. But when I awaken in the night, it is a lullaby hum that soothes me.
Anyway, at 3:48 am there is a bird singing. One bird. I check the luminous red numbers on the clock again and do a broad calculation. The sun will not rise until 5:16 am, so this bird is, indeed, very, very early. I concentrate on his song, blasting loud and strong into the darkness. I imagine, in my sleepy state, that he must be bursting with song; he must possess a need to hail the day with an immense bounty of hopefulness.
His song does not sound joyful. He sounds stretched, strained. If he were a person, he would be just at the point of his voice breaking, or giving out entirely. The veins would be standing out on his neck. This bird is trying way too hard. This bird is a wreck.
It’s hard to know what’s real when noises blend into dreams, and the same exact sound can be either a clatter or a hum, and a one should be able to count on a bird’s song being joyful, and it turns out the bird is a fucking disaster.
While we were in California, my aunt and uncle took us out on their boat to fish for yellowtail. The grown-ups talked about this for DAYS beforehand — how we were going out into the open ocean, on our very own boat. They would look at one another every so often and shout out “Yellowtail!” which was invariably followed by raucous laughter, back-slapping, and a big giant gulp from their glass.
When the much-vaunted day came, we set out for the place where their boat was docked. My aunt’s car was so big that the accumulated seven of us had no trouble whatsoever fitting in, and the three kids and one adult still bounced around the back seat with tons of space to spare. It was like being in a room in someone’s house that up and moved from place to place. Riding in it didn’t feel like any car I’d ever been in. Usually, when you drove over a bump, you’d feel a bump. In this behemoth, when you went over a bump, the entire car seemed to take it personally, and became intent on minimizing the blow by rolling from side to side a whole lot of times instead of just hitting the bump and getting it over with. When I looked over at my brother, the freckles across his nose had taken on a greenish tinge.
The seats were made out of a weird material that felt slippery and a little greasy all at the same time. I couldn’t stop running my index finger back and forth across the seat beside me. My mother turned around from her spot in the middle of the front seat and caught me doing this. “It’s a brand new synthetic!” she chirped. “It’ll last forever!” Being four years old, I heard it as “SIN-thetic.” And since I had a limited but wholly terrifying idea of “sin,” and since my mother seemed unreasonably gleeful about the whole car upholstery topic, I thought I better not say any more.
When we climbed on to the actual boat, the adults were in such unfettered good spirits that I felt immediately suspicious and bewildered and like I’d been invited to some party that was celebrating something I couldn’t understand. It turned out that you have to spend a whole lot of time on a boat, doing one thing and another that was also incomprehensible to me, way before the boat ever moves away from its place at the dock. But that whole time, the boat sits in the ocean heaving up and down and back and forth. Somebody decided that we children would be more comfortable “below;” so we – my aunt and the baby, my brother, and me — were relegated to the little enclosed room below the part of the boat that was outside and open to the air. The minute the door closed behind us, my brother did a quick look around, spotted a tiny little bench alongside a tiny little table, curled up, and went immediately to sleep.
I didn’t know what to do – where to sit, or stand, or look at, or anything. My aunt was holding the baby and cooing at her. That baby looked right at me, staring a hole. And without so much as a fuss or wiggle or even slight change of expression, she just opened up her mouth and spewed a gigantic amount of puke that ran all the way down her body and my aunt’s as well.
My aunt had a mess on her hands, and she got very wrapped up in wiping at the baby and herself with whatever she found at hand, all the while cooing and comforting her. Then the baby upchucked again.
I looked at my shoes. Partly because I still couldn’t figure out what to do, and partly because I thought the puke probably splattered onto them; and I was very proud of my saddle shoes.
What the heck were my parents up to? I stared at the door to make sure I’d see them coming, whenever they did.
Painting are by: Chris Schenkel (top) and Alex Scott. Chris and Alex participate in Chicago’s Arts of Life program. “Arts of Life advances the creative arts community by providing artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities a collective space to expand their practice and strengthen their leadership.”