You Lost Me There
Riverhead Books, 2010
Rosecrans Baldwin, a founding editor of the always-delightful The Morning News, looks like he was the second-hottest member of that 1990s boy-band whose name you can never quite recall. His soulful eyes suggest not literary depth but many evenings spent in front of a mirror, practicing soulful expressions. You’d no more expect to get an intelligent, searching novel out of that pretty head than you’d expect to get one out of Ricky Martin (some readers will remember when Justin Timberlake’s inner city basketball romance, tentatively titled Crossover Dreams, briefly threatened to become a published reality).
But Baldwin, it turns out, did no (publicly acknowledged) synchronized dancing in decades past. Instead, he’s been a freelancer and Internet taste-maker, and in his debut novel You Lost Me There, he’s dared to step into the literary arena, where not all is cheering and thrown hotel pass-cards. It’s true that the fiction publishing industry has in the last 20 years degenerated into a servile adjunct of Hollywood, so you can’t get a first novel published unless you’re young and good-looking. But once you do get your book out, it becomes fair game just like everybody else’s—fair game for book critics, some of whom are notorious for unkempt hair, uncapped teeth, and a penchant for hanging first novels on the clothesline and shooting them full of 12-gauge buckshot. It isn’t fair, but nevertheless: Many critics don’t care about your soulful eyes.
Those critics will have to look elsewhere for their meal; You Lost Me There is a very, very good novel and a fantastic fiction debut. It’s the story of Dr. Victor Aaron, studying Alzheimer’s at an institute on an island off the coast of Maine, grieving for his wife Sara, who dies in an accident before the novel’s action opens. Victor is still numb, but he’s shocked to discover a file of index cards Sara kept, writing up her version of some of the seminal moments of their relationship. To put it gently, her versions don’t align well with his own memories—moments he dismissed and no longer recalls get lavish attention from her, and vice versa, all very disconcerting to a man who’s devoted his life to unraveling the secrets of memory. Victor is prone to introspection of a particularly vacillating kind, and he’s also prone to analyzing that vacillation until you want to strangle him:
Decisions have multiple origins, neurologically. If we used only our brain’s rational side, we’d analyze without stopping, dissect our options into even smaller pieces, and follow out their logical options, step by step, until we were so distant from the original impulse that we’d forget why we began. Without our emotional voices, without the gut, without sentimental gales and whatever mute instinct governed (or not so mute, considering the loudness of hunger, a sex drive’s roaring static), there’d be only dithering.
And his dithering becomes a major factor in the budding relationship he stumbles into with Regina, one of his students at the institute and one of the most intriguing characters in a novel full of well-realized, intriguing characters. His various maddening stumbles in responding to her obvious affection culminate in an ending that’s fairly easy to see coming and include many frustrated intervals like this:
“I haven’t been myself in a long time.”
“Since before we met.”
She nodded, staring out. “Part of me knew all along.”
“Regina, I didn’t realize.”
“I happen to really hate dishonesty, you know? What a waste, when the other person is lying. What a waste for them.”
You expect to find flaws in a debut novel by a young novelist, and You Lost Me There definitely has some (including its very title—whoever convinced Baldwin to use a conversational idiom as a name for his book should stop giving him advice, before his second book is called LOL). The dialogue can sound more than a little staged; the suicide attempt is one of the least convincing since Bugs Bunny said “Good bye, cruel woild”; and the book’s obligatory Alzheimer’s exposition is not as well-integrated as perhaps the author hopes. But the portrait of Victor—his defiant bursts of optimism, the slow seeps of his pain—is strong enough to carry the reader past all imperfections and give them one very satisfying read.
“In youth,” Victor muses at one point, “you’re judged for talent. In middle age, for how much you’ve produced. Later years, for endurance, for stick-to-itiveness when the sky’s darkening.” All very true, and only time will tell if Baldwin has the stick-to-itiveness to surpass this debut. But one thing’s for sure: The talent is here already.