It is tempting to call Steven Lewis’ A Hard Rain a quiet novel. The prolific New Paltz novelist and patriarch’s prose – transparent, common, inconspicuously crafted – does little to call attention to itself. A tattered beach house on North Carolina’s Outer Banks provides a naturally reflective setting: the churning ocean and its familiar, windswept culture of islanders and tourists so sensuous and self-sustaining in the background that Lewis barely need mention it.
That quiet isolation of place is enhanced by an exquisitely maintained isolation of period. A Hard Rain takes place in the pre-digital early ’70s, rendered by Lewis with an unobtrusive, nuanced attention to detail. It was a time of one tethered telephone per family (which served as the preferred conduit of bad news), of people smoking indoors around children and of idle hours waiting for someone to return passed with decks of cards and dead-wall reveries.
Yet more reasons to call it quiet: Clocking in at a mere 160 pages, A Hard Rain reads like a single, one-piece meditation – especially if you have a day of leisure to give it. Lewis’ use of the second-person point of view situates the action internally, the reader locked into the skull of an advertising man named Peter Hudson. The main characters – a father and his three children – are unaccustomed to and unskilled at meaningful communication, and most of the novel’s relatively scant dialogue dramatizes their failure to connect verbally in a time of crisis. All is the unmanageable enormity of unexpressed feeling under the surface of the prose. Finally, the defining trait of the novel’s most consequential character, Brenda Hudson, is absence. She’s simply not there to explain herself, and her mute voice is a kind of noisy silence that hums underneath everything, like this quiet novel’s engine room.
But, for all that multifaceted quiet, A Hard Rain roils with disquiet, inner turmoil, intimate panic and unrelenting alarm. It begins in a state of false security and ends with a more robust sense of provisional peace, but everything in between is destabilized and liminal, an extraordinary circumstance disrupting (and in one case destroying) the lives of a perfectly ordinary suburban DC family. The space between fills with a love story, transitions, birth and death. It is in these sustained domestic episodes that Lewis’ virtuosity is most apparent: The long home-birth scene is masterful, the closing and selling of the family’s suburban home acutely detailed and poignant, the identification and retrieval of a body weirdly serene and devastating.
As in so many of the great stories, everything that happens in A Hard Rain proceeds organically and logically from one seedling, the novel’s kernel fact: One morning, on the last day of a family vacation in Hatteras, Brenda Hudson refuses to leave her childhood home and return to a suburban life that has become, for her, an insufferable hell. After a brief and quiet brick wall of an argument, she simply walks out on her husband and three teenaged children (no spoiler alert required; you already know all this before you’re 15 pages in).
A steady-handed designer of living narratives with a mind of their own, Lewis lets the situation drive, feeling out its richness, its ambiguities and its possibilities in the decisions made by imperfect characters in big trouble. While Brenda’s departure creates a world of practical and emotional problems for the novel to sort, what stands out is its resonant mythic quality. The novel’s slow-blossoming thesis is that the facts of our lives that we assume to be most solid and reliable are anything but. Everything, including the self as we know it, is the ocean: wild, mute, and not really ours.
In the rupture and imperfect healing of the Hudsons, we see that there is no real “normal” except as our adaptive resources and impulses make it so. A quietly terrible, mythic grandeur illuminates the novel, and if the image of a long-haired woman turning her back on the world and running toward the ocean is not already on a Tarot card, it probably should be.
Symmetries and mythic schema abound in A Hard Rain’s design. Brenda’s fanciful and unrealistic wish for Peter was that he leave his “good job” in Virginia and start an Island weekly newspaper, which is exactly what he is forced to do when he and his family take up a vigil on the island and wait for word of Brenda – or, more likely, for her body – to turn up. Peter assumes Brenda’s dream as his own nightmare. His kids blame him for Brenda’s disappearance, and when his daughter chooses to keep the baby fathered by the island teen who loved and then abandoned her, she names him Brendan without apology. When, over the course of several years of island vigil, Peter falls in difficult love with Jessica, her dream of a life with him is to get off the island of her birth and venture into the larger world from which Peter came.
Nothing is simple or fated in A Hard Rain. If there is one thing the novel insists that we acknowledge, it is that it didn’t have to be this way, and another Dylan line – a simple twist of fate – is the capricious engine of destiny. After a few hours of waiting for Brenda to walk it off and come back to the cottage with her senses restored, Peter loads the family into the van and leaves without Brenda, angry and eager to get the kids back to their real lives, but a sudden coastal storm stops their progress and gives Peter occasion to reconsider and turn around. The same weather event, we ultimately learn, sent Brenda scurrying back to the cottage, only to find it locked and the family gone. If events had skewed a few minutes one way or the other, none of this would have happened, and this mythic wheel of fate would never have been initialized.
No spoilers now, for real; but at its end, the novel reveals itself to be something quite different from a patriarchal and psychological hero’s-journey myth or a bittersweet coastal mood piece. In the mix of its final ambiguities, I find a complex feminist theme, a biting critique of the persistence of sexism and all the unfinished business of the social revolutions of the 1960s. Bravo, Mr. Lewis!
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