Fireworks by Elizabeth H Winthrop

Pyrotechnics lost as these imagined lives turn into damp squibs
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The Independent Culture

Elizabeth Winthrop's opening sentence offers an insight into her novel's narrator, Hollis Clayton: "When my grandfather died, I told everyone he'd been killed by aborigines while he was berry-picking in Africa."

Hollis spent his boyhood as a fireman, on safari, being Robin Hood. Now a writer, he still imagines other lives and invents scenarios. Even his wife treats him like someone who needs to be put to bed.

Lonely, sad Hollis sinks his melancholy in bottles of Jack Daniel's. It's summer. Both his wife and girlfriend have left him and, two years ago, his son Simon was killed in an accident. Hollis, who is blocked, seeks inspiration watching next-door's kids play in the yard. He thinks with guilt and pain about his own childhood. There was grandma's dog, suffocated when Hollis forgot him in a hot car; a pet cat squished on the road; his mother, who disappeared to a commune.

Hollis brings navel-gazing to a new level. His agent waits for a non-existent manuscript; his drinking buddies get cranky about his anecdotes, which never amount to anything. These days, Hollis reflects, "nonstories" are all he has.

In this debut, Winthrop has pulled off an accomplished act of ventriloquism. But is that enough? We have met Hollis's kind many times before, propping up bar-room novels, boring for America with a soulful feyness. And as a narrative voice, his drowns out all others. Hollis's chums get good lines but they are like feeds in a show built around a star.

As for the saintly wife Claire, she's hard to believe in. Would she suggest a holiday only months after her four-year-old was killed by joyriders?

Winthrop creates some gently wry set-pieces, such as Hollis's reluctant encounter with potential publishers. She is perceptive, too. Troubled and adrift, Hollis becomes obsessed with an abducted teenager and befriends a stray mutt. But his dejection when returning the dog to its owners convinces more than his sorrow over his son. That's because Simon's death reads like a plot device. Bereavement is the narrative fix of the moment. Drop a cot death or lost infant into a tale and an author can instantly explain away a character's odd behaviour while garnering readers' sympathy.

Hollis writes to his wife: "Don't nonstories become stories in the telling?" Possibly. But for a novel called Fireworks, there's a lack of linguistic pyrotechnics and brilliant illuminations. The novel is confidently done, but it doesn't dazzle.