Tommy Madison is a small-penised, effeminate boy-man who just can’t take the fact that his wife can’t feel him inside her. He snaps, and she flees rural Nebraska with their truck and savings, headed for … you guessed it: Sin City.
With a premise like that, you’d expect The Melting Season (Riverhead, 2010)—Jami Attenberg’s third and latest novel—to be full of quirk, color and action. However, the book is surprisingly low-key. Heroine Catherine Madison, an innocent farm wife in her mid-20s, is aimless and her thoughts predictable.
When Catherine arrives in Las Vegas, she decides to stay, despite her impressions: “Las Vegas looked like nonsense to me, a cartoon version of a real town.” Well, duh.
Attenberg’s descriptions ring true in a superficial way—the traffic-choked Strip, the expensive hotels, the plasticity. In a recent interview, she admitted she had only given the city a cursory glance:
“I haven’t spent a ton of time [in Las Vegas],” Attenberg told Elle.com’s Natasha Clark on Jan. 22. “But you kind of only really need to go once to get the picture. … It’s a holy American creation where everybody can converge in one place and have this one very specific experience.”
It’s sad that Attenberg felt that a once-over of our city was enough to create a novel set almost entirely here. Her characters stay in a $500-plus Strip hotel, so they never venture beyond it. To call it holy is to roman- ticize it, and to say that everyone here is having the same “very specific experience” is to condescend to the unique multitudes.
The closest Attenberg comes to mining human complexity comes when Catherine hooks up with a couple of tribute artists, with whom she shares her biggest childhood secret amid Las Vegas’ phony ostentation.
But the novel stops short of the full power, resonance and Gothic grotes- querie it could have had, if Attenberg had not missed so many opportunities to create color and suspense. For example, despite the fact that Catherine is on the run, no one is chasing her.
Catherine remains a bit of an enigma, too. She has a disconcerting habit of never using contractions, which makes her
sound robotic. Is she trying to sound more intellectual than her rural family? We never find out. Although she endures a post-separation depression, there is always something arid and distant about her. Attenberg keeps Catherine detached by using a matter-of-fact, journalistic first-person voice, the sort of style one learns in academic writing workshops.
Catherine’s family members seem even less formed, making it difficult
to care about them—even the di- minutive Tommy, with his horrifyingly sad-funny situation. The most intrigu- ing characters are the impersonators and the gay couple who own the diner in Catherine’s hometown. Scenes with these characters contain the ghost of Carson McCullers’ unforgettable freaks, but never fulfill their potential.
Each character is dealing with some- thing that makes them feel sexually freak- ish, and our own strange Las Vegas is the setting, but the safe, detached writing style pulls every punch it could have made.