By James Calvin Schaap
(Baker Book House;$12.99)
"My childhood passed decades ago," Lowell Prins announces, at the beginning of James Calvin Schaap's newest novel. With those words, Schaap exiles his book to the misty land of memory -- a prison that Romey's Place never escapes.
Lowell Prins, son of a small-town minister, promises us that the Story he's about to tell has shaped his life. "What happened there years ago," he solemnly tells us, "I will never forget." This promise (repeated over and over as Prins wanders from one adolescent crisis to another) keeps us hanging on until the unforgettable event actually takes place (thirty pages from the end). Even then, the payoff is diminished by Schaap's narrative technique, which continually overlays the voice of the adolescent Lowell with the intrusive editorializing of the adult Prins.
"Just for a second she looked at me," Schaap writes, at the moment when we should be entirely caught up in a torrent of unfolding events, "in a way I'll never forget, in a way my memory has preserved and maybe even exaggerated over the years -- but in a way I later came to believe was something of the approval she didn't get from my grandfather, the warrant the old preacher wouldn't give her, even though the two of us -- me and grandpa -- finally and surely agreed at that moment on the state of Cyril's soul." Then he returns us to the impending tragedy, but by this time the reader has wandered off for a cup of tea.
This distance imposed between the reader and the novel's events Makes Romey's Place as compelling as a set of vacation slides, complete with narration. At every turn, the adult Lowell turns up again, telling us exactly what each event means in stultifying detail. Caught smoking, young Lowell is confronted by a distraught father and weeping mother: "I was just a kid," Lowell Prins says, "almost less than that, a child -- but for years that bedroom moment has taught me all I need to know about the tenacity of the human will, the instinct to protect oneself at all costs, even if it means lying some more." Anyone for some Earl Grey?
Schaap is so busy telling us what to think of these scenes that we're never permitted to experience them. He doesn't trust his readers; he has to spell it all out. This editorializing voice drowns his story - and finally kills our interest.
Susan Wise Bauer is the author most recently Though the Darkness Hide Thee and the co-author of The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home.