CARRY THE ONE, by Carol Anshaw. Simon & Schuster, 253 pp., $25.
The long shadow cast by the excesses of the 1980s has been the subject of several excellent recent novels, including Michelle Huneven's "Blame" and Eleanor Henderson's "Ten Thousand Saints." How do the survivors of self-induced, self-indulgent tragedies do penance, find wisdom, compensate (or not) in the decades following?
Carol Anshaw's novel "Carry the One" begins at the rural Wisconsin wedding of Carmen Kenney and Matt Sloan in 1983. The final hours of the reception find Carmen's sister upstairs making out with Matt's sister, while Carmen's brother and his date take mushrooms with teenage cousins. At 3 a.m., that foursome, plus a folk singer friend, pile into a car to head back to Chicago. The bride, who is pregnant and exhausted, doesn't have the energy to run after and tell them their lights aren't on as they head down the driveway.
A few minutes later, the car hits and kills a little girl.
Anshaw's story follows the Kenney siblings and other characters over the next 25 years though a series of distinct moments, so that the structure is almost a novel-in-stories. Leftist / feminist do-gooder Carmen will lose her husband to Christianity and the baby-sitter; fortunately, her quirky, wonderful son Gabe and her sister Alice never fail her. Alice, meanwhile, sees her art career go over the moon but never recovers from the passion conceived at the wedding for the beautiful Maude. Their on-again, off-again relationship is one of many captivating plot elements that add juice to this sobering tale -- as do Anshaw's humor and acuity, which make every description a delight. For example, Alice's reaction to the reappearance of her beloved:
Maude was "still totally invasive. She went through Alice's mail, her drawers, the paintings in her racks. She picked bits of nut from between Alice's teeth, Q-tipped wax from her ears. Alice had mixed sentiments about this, the sentiments being (a) thrilled, and (b) wanting to run from the room screaming."
The youngest Kenney sibling, Nick, is also hostage to an obsession -- drugs. Guilt, love, other people's forbearance and aid, his success as an astronomer -- nothing, it turns out, can stop Nick from following the itinerary of his life.
The heartbreaking slog of being Nick's sister is a burden shared by Alice and Carmen, and contains one of the resonances of the title. Another is elucidated by Alice with regard to the folk singer dude who, after trying to slink off from the scene of the accident, profits from it years later with a cheesy song. "Here's what I hate," Alice says, "There's still this connection, between me and him because we were both in the car. Like in arithmetic. Because of the accident, we're not just separate numbers. When you add us up, you always have to carry the one."
In life, celebration is often followed immediately by tragedy, which then yields to some pretty good stuff and some slightly annoying stuff, then more of the huge bombs again. Learning to live with every variety of sadness and happiness and mundanity is the central challenge of spending many years on earth. What a great thing to write about, and what a fine job Anshaw has done.