Let The Water Hold Me Down
(Ad Lumen Press, 2013)
There is summer reading, and then there is summer reading, and Michael Spurgeon’s debut novel, Let The Water Hold Me Down, is the type of book that has the ability to mimic high-end air conditioning—the blinding, sweeping kind that dims the lights and shuts out the world and sinks you down into a state of half-lidded consciousness. The story follows Henry “Hank” Singer, who is handicapped by a deep and paralyzing grief from an accident that he is responsible for—the deaths of both his wife and young daughter that could have been prevented if not for an act motivated by Hank’s sudden and misplaced bravado that even he cannot understand or put into context in the aftermath of the event. But this is not a novel about what motivates irrational impulses; this is a novel about Hank’s escape from his old life and toward something new—a new life that is still defined by connections to the past in the form of his college best friend, César Lobos de Madrid, a fair-skinned Mexican soccer playing God who is “rich, good-looking, [a] star athlete with just enough Latin lilt in his voice to, in the words of a female classmate, ‘make a lady cross her legs’ [with] something more to his personality, something less tangible, something magnetic,” and who, like other men who have historically shared the name “César,” is also a bit of a megalomaniac with a dangerous side. Hank leaves his destroyed life in Colorado on impulse, and heads to Chiapas, an isolated state in Mexico, where his best friend, César, lives in San Cristóbal, helping oversee the successful, generations-old empire his family has built. Living with César gives Hank all of the illusions of structure and stability—afterall, the house itself sits behind a reinforced wall “suggesting it had been built to withstand a battering ram,” but even the compound-like structure cannot keep out the memories of Hank’s wife, Jenn, and daughter, Suzy. Hank attempts to create routine and distraction, and takes a job at the local bar, El Acuario, where instead of emptying his mind he complicates his life when he “notice[s] her…and she might have been the most beautiful woman [he’d] ever seen.” The her is Maria, the wrong woman at the right time, who is a single mother with her own brand of damage, and despite warnings from César, Hank enters into a relationship that enables him to let the memories of his own life begin to scab over and heal. But if Spurgeon leads you to believe that this is a novel built just on a love story, that is also not the case, because soon after Hank and Maria start their own kind of revolution, the real revolutionaries come to town, the Zapatistas, because this is 1994 and the Mexican jungle is alive with soldiers in training who come down from the hills to wage war against the government and the military, and set up camp in the center of Hank’s new town. Spurgeon’s novel explodes with the Zapatista uprising, and Hank’s carefully woven life begins to unravel as the military closes in and César’s true character is revealed. Although Hank and César are “comprades…brothers for life…Batman and Batman,” cocaine and guns and a beautiful woman aren’t good for loyalty, and Hank is about to learn new lessons about the power of loss. Written with a direct narrative intensity that never loosens its grip, Spurgeon’s novel is summer escapism at its best.
JODI ANGEL is the author of You Only Get Letters From Jail.