Repetition and Evolution: Structure in Robert Boswell’s CROOKED HEARTS
By Amber Wheeler Bacon •
In the third draft of my novel, I’m still messing with structure. It feels like I’ll always be messing with structure. To experiment, I’ve tried copying the frameworks of different novels I love: Purity by Jonathan Franzen, The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. (Yes, these are all about bad parents; yes, so is my novel.) But it was when I read Crooked Hearts by Robert Boswell that something clicked—I saw what all of these varied structures had in common.
Boswell’s novel is about the Warrens, a quirky family living in Yuma, Arizona with their share of failures and heartbreaks. They’re an optimistic lot, however. When someone screws up big, they throw a party. No one really knows how the parties started. One brother thinks they “[stem] from an undying familial urge to drink.” Another says their parents just want the family together when there’s trouble. They do drink, but Ask, the youngest brother, thinks it’s because there’s nothing else to do. He says, “It’s not like we could pray or something.”
The first party of the book takes place after the second-oldest son, Tom, fails out of Berkeley. He also gets a Dear John letter from his girlfriend on the back of a wedding invitation. Hers. Tom arrives home to his father making a toast: “To having the whole family together again,” he says with his Seven and Seven held high, and Tom steps through the door. The family parties continue throughout the book, as one tragedy happens after another.
In a talk at the Bennington Writing Seminars in 2016, Bret Anthony Johnston used Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” as an example of a frame for writing that he called “repeat, repeat, evolve.” Bailey’s shirt is mentioned several times in the story (repeat, repeat). The reader, like the grandmother, then sees Bailey’s shirt coming out of the forest. The Misfit is wearing it. Bailey, we know, is dead (evolve). The shirt becomes significant because it is the point at which the story evolves.
I considered Johnston’s “repeat, repeat, evolve” as a device to be used within the existing structure of a story. I saw the shirt as a symbolic, rather than a structural element. I didn’t realize, though, that you could structure a novel like this. That in fact, there are many stories and novels structured like this.
Two things happened that helped me better understand Johnston’s device. First, my six-year-old son read me the book, There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. The repetition, I saw, is more than just rhythmic. It’s elemental to the narrative structure of the story. At a certain point, something has to change—the old lady can’t go on swallowing animals forever. I picked up one children’s book after another that night: The Napping House, Goodnight Gorilla, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Repeat, repeat, evolve was all over the place. At the time, I was halfway through Crooked Hearts.
In the same way that the old lady swallows animals of increasing size, the family parties in Boswell’s novel repeat, each one “celebrating” something more tragic than the last. But the party at the end of the book has to be different—the structure depends on it.
Halfway through the book, the family holds a party after Charley, the oldest Warren child, now an adult, sets fire to his family’s house and then leaves town. He realizes that the only way to escape his family is to ruin their lives so that they will hate him. While the house is catching fire, Charley turns the key in his van and “[drives] away to a new life.” Leading up to this event, tension has been building. Charley’s relationship with his father, Edward, worsens. Charley impregnates Tom’s girlfriend while Tom is away at college. Tom finds out. Charley’s hurt everyone so much that burning down the house is more of a culmination of acts rather than one isolated incident. But it’s still a surprise. And it comes at just the right point.
While some plots points are settling down, this one uncovers new questions for the reader: Will Charley come home? Where will the family live? Will they ever feel at home again? Can they feel at home without Charley? And by the way, why the hell does Charley hate his father so much, and will he ever forgive him? Some of the questions aren’t totally new—we’ve been wondering about Charley from the beginning. Now that we know Tom’s going to be okay—he’s got a new girl and a shitty job, which is more than he had—we can really focus on Charley’s issues.
After the fire and Charley’s abandonment, the remaining family hole up in a crummy hotel room. Their home is gone, but there is always still something to celebrate. Ask makes sure the drinks are ready and hangs up a sign, “Home is where the Warrens are.” The mother arrives with two white lilies. She says, “I thought this would be like a wake.” They have a party in the hotel room, their first without Charley—a slight evolution. (Perhaps this is the equivalent of the old lady swallowing the medium-to-large-sized animal?)
Between this party and the next one, many of the questions about Charley and his father are answered. Edward’s story is mostly tied up; the woman he had an affair with years ago even makes a brief appearance during this section of the book. The family moves to a new house, which reminds them of a fort or a bomb shelter: “This one won’t burn,” Ask says. As Edward’s story resolves, he has a stroke, which calls for another party, the second to last in the novel. There’s confusion about the timing, however, and he’s still in the hospital while Ask sets up for the celebration. The other family members—without Charley, of course—walk through the door and see the house decorated for a party. A banner hangs across the hallway, reading “The Fallen Shall Rise.” Tom pours a Seven and Seven and raises it to make a toast to his absent father, but can’t think of anything to say. With Edward in the hospital and Charley gone, the family feels broken. At this point, the reader is waiting for Charley to come home, hoping his return will restore something they’ve lost. I found myself wondering how he would come home. What I realized reading this book is how important the how he comes home is. Charley showing up one day out of the blue would resolve the tension and the story, but the question for the writer is: How can I bring Charley home in the best way possible? How can Charley’s reappearance evolve the story? What’s the best reason to bring Charley home?
In some versions of There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, she explodes after eating a ridiculously large animal like a horse or elephant (depending on locale). In some versions, she dies. Boswell really only had one choice—someone had to die.
George Saunders’s wonderful essay “The Perfect Gerbil,” on Donald Barthelme’s story “The School,” focuses on this repeating pattern within a story. It’s a delicate balance for a writer: Make the reader feel at home enough to develop expectations of the story, but evolve the text enough that they still experience the delight and surprise of something unexpected—even if the answer has been in front of them all along.
Maybe I should have seen the last party in Crooked Hearts coming, but I didn’t. It’s the worst tragedy a family can encounter: Ask dies in a weird accident. The party isn’t planned, but Charley shows up after the funeral, with a salad—that’s always been his role, he makes the salad. Tom turns on the music and the dancing becomes “intense and frenetic.” There are no toasts. Later, Charley leaves again, but we know he’ll be back the next time tragedy hits.
At the end of the night, Tom and his mother are the only two left awake. She may be drunk. “Do you think, Tom, do you think we were so bad? Were we so bad as to deserve this?” she asks him. Her son replies, “Maybe… Maybe we were without knowing it.” After the frantic dance party, with this conversation, the tension in the novel dissolves. While reading, especially the first time, I could barely see the words through my tears. There’s little story left at this point, only four more pages. The book has evolved as much as it’s going to. And maybe it isn’t just the story that’s evolved, maybe the reader has, too.
AMBER WHEELER BACON is a writer, teacher and literacy specialist. She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and is on the board of directors of the South Carolina Writers Association. Her work is forthcoming or has recently appeared in Epiphany, Post Road, New Ohio Review, Crazyhorse, and Witness. Her writing can also be seen online at Ploughshares and New South. She was awarded the 2018 Breakout 8 Writers Prize by Epiphany and The Author’s Guild.