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Book Review: We Shall Not All Sleep

By (July 10, 2017) No Comment

We Shall Not All Sleep

by Estep Nagy

Bloomsbury, 2017

There’s an easy and confidence to the prose of Estep Nagy’s We Shall Not All Sleep that immediately seems out of place in what is, after all, a debut novel. Vagaries of talent set aside (and typically, in the 21st century, pounded out of existence by the lock-step Midwich Cuckoo experience of the writing workshops that are so ubiquitous in the 21st century), one possible explanation is that this novel is far from Nagy’s first attempt to craft a complicated story for an audience. He’s published his writing in a number of periodicals, and he’s the writer and director of the independent film The Broken Giant – in other words, even if he’s been working on this novel in fits of long, garrett-bound solitude, he’s simultaneously been learning how to craft a working narrative in ways that first-time authors confined to solitude seldom do.

Whatever the reasons, the results are impressive: We Shall Not All Sleep is an absolutely invigorating fiction debut. It’s the story of two Maine households, the Quicks and the Hillsingers, alike in dignity, fractiously sharing the small island of Seven, where their rival home-compounds have been expanding in edgy competition with each other for centuries. The novel takes place in the summer of 1964 – Nagy doesn’t need to juggle cellphones or the Internet – when the families have come to the island for the annual Migration, when the island’s sheep are gathered and put out to richer pastures. On the surface, the old tensions have been somewhat papered over by a relatively recent connection: Jim Hillsinger and Billy Quick each married a sister from the Manhattan high-society Blackwell family and are now brothers-in-law. But the old antagonisms simmer beneath the surface, ready to break to new mutiny because of fresh tensions. Was Jim, recently and ignominiously booted from the CIA on suspicion of treason, ratted out by Billy? Was Jim’s wife, Lila, involved, perhaps in more ways than one? And what role will the couples’ children play in the dramas that unfold?

Boiled down, it’s fairly standard interfamily-rivalry stuff of a type that wouldn’t be out of place in a Jilly Cooper potboiler, but Nagy writes it with such a clean, graceful prose line that he transforms it all into a fascinating multi-part psychological investigation. Both brothers and their wives are bringing fresh grievances to the island, and the flashbacks – to both Jim’s experiences with the CIA and Billy’s persecution by the FBI for Communist connections at the height of the McCarthy era – are expertly done, full of sharp dialogue and time-stopping moments of character insight at which Nagy excels, as in the scene during the interrogation of Billy’s wife Hannah when she suddenly realizes things have slipped out of her control and become semi-farcical:

It was here and now that the lightness surprised her: something levitating, unsought, and unsponsored, a feeling in the register not of good-fellowship or safety, but instead of comedy, the old comedies, as in the moment when all the mad chaotic strands suddenly resolve and four couples are married at once by a disguised friar. The feeling was so surprising that she laughed out loud.

Of the aforementioned children, Billy’s twelve-year-old son Catta plays an oddly critical role in the book’s most memorable and least likely sub-plot, in which he’s stranded by Jim on a small uninhabited nearby island in order to force him to “find his manhood” or some such thing. This weird decision is the motor for quite a bit of the novel’s second half, and it features some of the book’s strongest writing, as Catta desperately tries to figure out what’s happening to him:

This was how the world crushes you, he thought. There was no announcement. There was no freakish blow or lightning or floods or even bears. There was no mystery, not even any struggle or surprise. It was infinitely simple. You were forced into a series of small bad decisions that slowly and irrevocably cut off your options. And then, once you were confused and desperate and word down by hunger and cold and whatever else – when at last you could no longer move or think – then the crows came down from their trees.

The instantly-obvious problem with that passage – no twelve-year-old ever thought such thoughts, even when worried about being eaten by a bear – is actually endemic to the entire novel in a low-key way: all of Nagy’s characters tend to sound like the bitterly cynical gin-soaked Blackwell sisters, which is great for the many scenes in which they appear as perfectly-realized creations but not so great when their extremely eloquent disillusionments are coming out of the mouths of babes and miscellaneous groundskeepers.

But the talk itself – so pointed, so alive with phrasing – is nevertheless the standout element of We Shall Not All Sleep. Debut seasons seldom turn out books this strong.