C.E. Poverman's Latest Novel Is Prime Summer Reading
By Christine Wald-Hopkins
On the Edge, by C.E. Poverman (Ontario Review Press). Cloth, $22.95.
IT HASN'T BEEN a good couple of days for Frank August: He's failed the bar exam again, and the neatly packed suitcases have reappeared in his wife's closet; he's taking increasing comfort in the vodka bottle, and can't pay his secretary. And then there's that pesky issue of the art dealer's party, the one at which August got up-close and personal with a stiff stripped of some significant anatomical appendages, one of which ended up stuffed in the unfortunate guy's mouth.
On the Edge is the fourth novel by UA writing teacher C.E. Poverman, following his Susan, Solomon's Daughter, and My Father in Dreams. His short stories have been recognized by Pushcart and O. Henry, and the collection Skin was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Poverman's literary tastes and his expertise in the short story are apparent in this work: This August guy who grinds his own coffee just isn't your father's Mike Hammer.
San Francisco legal investigator Frank August makes no direct bid for the reader's sympathy. As the narrative opens, with his failure notice from the California Bar, he's lying to a consultant he can't pay, checking out all the women who enter his field of vision, and flashing back to cheating on his artist wife. When he's given an assignment by criminal defense attorney Aram Melikian to meet with Ray Buchanan, arrested on drug charges, he neither acknowledges to Melikian his long-time friendship with Buchanan nor disqualifies himself for Buchanan's sake when he realizes his potential implication in the bust could skew his judgment. We soon see that August's judgment is hardly true in any case. His periodic alcoholic binges slap blanks in his memory; he's Xeroxed the erotic correspondence between him and the guest speaker he met at his one AA meeting. On the up side, Frank is kind to kids and cats; on the down side, he's let the garden go to seed.
The easy questions in On the Edge are will this Juris Doctor avoid the slammer, hang onto his wife, and ever become a lawyer? The hard question is, should he?
This is not a transparent good guy/bad guy detective thriller. Poverman's threaded it with complications of culpability, compromise, questions of social responsibility and ethical and legal obligation. And nobody comes away clean--not police, not the attorneys, not the feds, who lay traps and cut deals; and certainly not the investigator, though August at least recognizes the risk of contamination: "There was a fine line between you and them," he writes philosophically to his AA lay, "and you had to make sure you didn't wake up one morning and find yourself on the wrong side of that line, or worse, not even know you were...."
So what else happens when you cross a creative writing MFA with a detective novel? Style, for one. Some of Poverman's passages are artfully realized:
He felt that something which had once been broken and patched had been broken again this morning. Something which had been in motion for years had come to a stop; he wanted to lie down and sleep; far away, the sound of traffic rose up the street like distant surf, abstracted into a voice.
A little literary allusion, for another. Where'd that James Joyce come from? Frank August, and Catholicism, and his father, and the unfair Jesuit teacher, and past hurts and present resentments and guilt and the never-ending, one-paragraph, two-page sentence.
But don't be deterred by the literary; this is a natural summer read. It kept four drivers--kids and parents--intrigued and alert on a 16-hour drive to Dallas (with a few fast-forwards in deference to mom's sensibilities). Also, there's the Tucson connection: August might live in San Francisco, but he picks up a flowering hibiscus tie at the Buffalo Exchange (yeah, okay, there's one there, but it originated here). The palo verdes blooming during August's sojourn in New Mexico might have showed up on Michael Goodrich's pollen count; and there's a public tennis court in Reno, ringed by oleanders and skateboarders, which sounds just like a place you might've knocked a few balls around midtown.
If dialogue in the novel plods occasionally or issues in plot aren't entirely resolved, it's minor criticism. This is entertainment that could make you think. And reading local writers lends a little insight into the writer's craft. This lawyer Aram Melikian, for example, (strange name, huh?) is arrogant, smart, moody. Where'd this detail come from about a contempt citation for wearing green hightops to court?
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