Imperfect Solitude by Tom Mahony: a review
Sometimes a wave offers no room to maneuver …
When Evan Nellis, a neophyte biologist still reeling from the mysterious death of his father, is hired by PDT Biological Consulting in San Francisco, he finds himself under the brutal tutelage of Gordon Shaw, a brilliant biologist sorely lacking in people skills. With his neurotic, hypochondriac mother pressuring him to move back home to rural California and his entry-level wage forcing him to stay on the couch of an eccentric friend, Evan’s only relief is surfing.
That changes when Richard Headley, a wealthy developer, takes an interest in Evan’s and requests him personally for the biological assessments of his properties. Yet what seems like a blessing at first soon finds Evan in conflict with his principles, and he must confront everyone, himself, before all he values is destroyed.
Many months ago one of our regular contributors, Tom Mahony, sent me through a copy of his first book: Imperfect Solitude. It has taken me awhile to get around to reading it, work deadlines kept getting in the way. I also kept thinking that I wasn’t in the mood for a “surf novel”. Well, putting off reading this book was a mistake.
Imperfect Solitude is a smart and well-written book that wrestles honestly with some complicated issues around the environment, family and friends and our often fickle commitment to them. The conversation the characters have with these issues are affective and make the reader’s body as uncomfortable as their assumptions on the issues. Tom presents us with difficult questions. His characters offer up no answers but rather explore honest faults and contradictions that we all tend to try to push aside and smooth over in an attempt to simply get by in what is at times an ugly and exploitative social system that we have been cast into. There is no easy way of resisting the desires this system produces and fulfils at the same time. All the characters make adjustments, compromises and squirm as they try to work out how much their conscience can hold or what they can forget (or not) as demands not of their choosing impact on them.
The book starts in a slow burn. The characters and settings creep up on you and soon you are swept up in their scenarios and problems, and come to join the main character Evan’s longing for a paddle-out at his local for some respite. Tom delivers these session intermittently with the nous only a surfer with considerable experience could. The surfing scenes take a back seat to the main issues being discussed yet sincerely capture the role surfing plays in so many of our lives – intermittent bursts of sanity amongst the mayhem.
Imperfect Solitude heats up two thirds of the way in. However, I found the somewhat dramatic shift of pace disconcerting. The first two thirds of the book had me making comparisons to an Annie Proulx novel, whereby you are not sure where things are going but you go along anyway with oh so subtle changes in the lives of others whereby you end up different (alongside them) without being quite aware of when that difference arrived. Personally, the shift into high gear jarred and I found myself wanting Tom to slow down again and let me get to know more of the characters even better and to mine their problems and contradictions further. There was far more rich material here to explore and a longer journey to be had. The “more” speaks volumes. I wanted more of this novel, not less.
The writing itself has all the hallmarks of Tom’s short stories: crisp sharp sentences, lucid thought, and an ability to capture your senses. The dialogue is honest, and the voices are those we here around us every day. No conversation is forced or feels out of place.
Imperfect Solitude is definitely worth a read. It’s got depth to it without being even remotely preachy in regards to the issues it brings up. The writing is sparse and without any fanfare. Just how I like it. George Orwell would have been proud.
Quite clearly Imperfect Solitude is not a “surf novel”. In fact, it was a disservice for me to refer to Imperfect Solitude as a “surf novel” with the cliches and tired narrative that “genre” implies. What Tom has written is, rather, a modern, fresh and bold first novel about issues facing coastal communities in modern America. Tom Mahony is a writer of considerable talent and has important things to say, and if given the space and support promises to stand out as a significant young American author worth seeking out.
- Clifton Evers
You can read a the first chapter of Imperfect Solitude and buy it here.