IMPROVEMENT, by Joan Silber. Counterpoint, 227 pp., $26.
What is this elusive thing, improvement, which gives Joan Silber’s new novel its title? For the many characters in these pages — variously interconnected by blood, love, money and fate — the word has different meanings; the longed-for improvement may be financial, domestic, professional or romantic. Everyone is a seeker.
“Improvement” opens with Kiki, who, as a young woman in the early 1970s, seeks adventure in Istanbul and marries a carpet merchant. “People travel and they find places they like so much they think they’ve risen to their best selves just by being there,” reports Kiki’s niece, Reyna, who narrates this section. “[My] aunt was such a person.” Kiki and her new husband leave Istanbul to live and work on his family farm in rural Turkey. The marriage doesn’t work out; Kiki returns to New York and eventually becomes a sort of godmother — part role model, part scold — to Reyna.
Reyna, a tattooed single mom with a 4-year-old son, has troubles of her own. Reyna’s current boyfriend, Boyd, is serving a three-month sentence at Rikers Island for selling 5 ounces of pot. (“Who thinks that should even be a crime?” opines Reyna.) He is a gentle, sweet boyfriend and a good soul, but Reyna is “perfectly aware,” she says, “that some part of my life with Boyd was not entirely real, that if you pushed it too hard a whole other feeling would show itself.”
When he gets out of Rikers, Boyd, along with his cousin Maxwell and their friend Claude, cook up a scheme to smuggle cigarettes from Virginia to New York, cashing in on the tax difference. Reyna thinks it’s a terrible idea for three black guys (one of them on probation) to take the risk; what if they’re pulled over by the cops? They go ahead with the plan, but when their driver goes AWOL just before one trip, Boyd proposes that Reyna take the wheel — and her decision will have consequences that ripple out well beyond their small circle.
Over the course of the novel, we’ll meet an array of characters connected to these core few, from a trio of blithely amateur German antiquities smugglers Kiki meets in Turkey to Claude’s Richmond girlfriend, unexpectedly haunted by their short-lived relationship. Silber specializes in these sorts of chance associations; her best known books are cycles of linked stories that bump up against one another, such as “Fools” (2013) and “Ideas of Heaven: A Ring of Stories” (a National Book Award finalist in 2004).
Life unfolds for Silber’s characters as a series of accidents, happy and otherwise, and any good fortune they do find is most likely provisional. The enjoyment that Reyna and Boyd find in one another after he gets out of jail is “a spirit so much like happiness” that she hardly dares call it such. Elsewhere, a truck driver having an ongoing affair with his ex-wife whenever he drives through town thinks, “It wasn’t the best sex they’d ever had, but he did his part, the spirit of the thing took over, they managed fine.” One of the German smugglers considers a new girlfriend — met in the wake of a long, rocky relationship — to be his “greatest stroke of luck.” Dieter reflects: “He’d fallen into a truthful life, but it might have been otherwise.”
You can feel, in those words, how tenderly Silber treats her large cast of men and women, how she deals out small moments of grace even as things go terribly wrong for them. This seems like a good place to bring up Silber’s voice: unshowy and intimate, precise and colloquial, she seems almost to be confiding the novel to us, a worldly wise aunt not unlike Kiki herself. She marshals great feeling in the course of “Improvement” without making it seem a big deal.
The decorative carpet that graces the jacket of “Improvement” — presumably representing one that Kiki brings back from Turkey and gives to Reyna — will play a crucial role in the novel’s denouement. It can also serve as a metaphor for the work of art that Silber has created, woven from many strands whose pattern becomes evident only when it is completed. And like that carpet, it is at once intricate and gloriously simple. “Improvement” is an everyday masterpiece.