Publication Date: April 28, 2013
In The Wellbaby by Zack Grenville, Amanda Prahl has had a tough life. When Amanda was rescued from a well as 10-month-old, the town of Iron Lake, Oklahoma benefited greatly and now that Amanda is 18, it’s her turn to profit. In 1988 the town of Iron Lake is in crisis. The town’s largest employer has closed. Iron Lake, Oklahoma needs a miracle at a time when miracles are in short supply.
The first 10 percent ofThe Wellbaby reads like the creative writing assignment in which students sit in the center of a room and write about absolutely everything they see. The overt detail is clearly intended to convey the bleak existence of Iron Lake and to introduce the characters. While the assumed goal is accomplished, the story drags leading the reader to wonder if the narrative will ever truly start to flow. Once the exposition is set, Grenville’s pacing improves greatly bringing us into a truly fascinating study of blue-collar life and small-town politics.
Amanda must have been a difficult character to write. She is a rough-around-the-edges girl who quit school at 15 with the knowledge that one day she would collect monies that are being held in trust. Despite her rough exterior, she is a character who has been through the fire and came out the other side with all the street smarts she needs to survive. Amanda could have been very one-dimensional, but Grenville’s development of her story and the logic in her progression makes the character nothing short of brilliant. At one point in the narrative, she has given up and is ready to submit herself to gang rape. While hearing the description, a potential reader may be skeptical of the scene; there is a legitimacy in the way that the scene is written that leads readers to the knowledge that not only does the town need a miracle but so does Amanda Prahl. The Wellbaby is not a story of redemption.
The Wellbaby is raw and gritty. The hopelessness of the situation for everyone sings from the page. When employees are gathered together to receive news of the Trailblazer plant closing, Grenville’s description rings true of a loss that has the potential to turn Iron Lake into a ghost town. Grenville’s story calls back to the work of John Steinbeck with flawed characters and hopeless settings. A dusty, dirty and morally shifty existence that easily goes to extremes. Iron Lake’s mayor could have been a stereotype of a small-town politician with his schmoozing, constantly eating shaky lines not to be crossed, but Grenville gives him a life outside of those lines. Grenville paints the characters and settings that those of us born in working-class America know well.
The Wellbaby is not the sort of story that a reader loves, but it’s one that draws us in. Grenville’s narrative, once it starts going, is well written and engrossing. I can’t suggest that everyone will like The Wellbaby, but I can say that if you like Southern contemporary fiction, you’ll likely enjoy this look into human nature at its extreme.
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