Review: Progress by Michael V. Smith

April 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

260 pages, Cormorant Books, www.cormorantbooks.com, $21

Michael V. Smith’s second novel, Progress, is based on a lovely conceit: when the construction of a dam uproots a riverside town, its residents are forced to choose new homes and plots, and with them, new futures.

Smith follows Helen and Robbie Massey, a brother and sister who were driven apart in their teens by a secret that only Robbie knew: they shared a lover. While Helen, the central character, confronts her fear of change, Robbie progresses (and awfully, inevitably, regresses) by coming clean with his sister.

Robbie’s story of runaway, drug abuse and sex addiction is surprising, risky and full of concrete details like the smell of a meth pipe or the contents of an addict’s fridge.

Helen, on the other hand, gets this, on page 172: “she could feel her future, like a mare in the distance, coming for her.”

Why a mare? Why not a stallion? Would a character so panicked by the prospect of her future have the presence of mind to distinguish between a mare and a stallion?

Is it because old grey Helen just ain’t what she used to be? Hard to tell, considering Smith gives no indication that Helen ever possessed a personality. She and her brother allude to no fights, no inside jokes, no apparent alliance against the father they both feared.

Worst of all, this is Helen’s great inflection point. This is where she takes charge of her life, apparently, and Smith has hijacked her moment with symbolism.

The only possible result is a story that rarely strays from the outward appearance of poetry to say something true about being human.

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