Morgan Talty's debut novel Fire Exit: NPR

Tin House Books


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Tin House Books

There is a strange kind of novel that, more than a central plot, revolves around life itself. These novels are difficult to write because they are often about unspeakable feelings – loneliness, love, guilt, grief, heritage, family – but also about everyday events presented in a new light.

Morgan Taltys Emergency exit is one of those rare novels, and it works wonderfully well. A moving story about family and a raw story about alcoholism, dementia and longing. Emergency exit is a novel where past and present are constantly on the page as we follow one man's life – while also showing what that life could have been.

Charles Lamosway always looks across the river that divides Maine's Penobscot Reservation. On the bank opposite the house he built with his stepfather, lives Elizabeth, the mother of Charles' daughter Mary, with whom he has no contact. No one on the reservation knows about this, but the lack of contact has done nothing to soften Charles' attention or the love he has for Mary. But now Charles hasn't seen Elizabeth in weeks, and he's worried.

Charles has enough on his mind: he's struggling to care for his mother Louise, whose dementia is getting worse, and he's also trying to care for his alcoholic friend Bobby. But worry about Elizabeth and Mary constantly reminds him of the past: his time as an alcoholic and the damage he caused to himself and others during that time, the death of his beloved stepfather in a hunting accident with a moose and the resulting guilt . that has haunted him for years, and the way he has always been on the reservation, but also an outsider. More than any of these questions, Charles is haunted by questions about his daughter, and he is no longer sure that keeping everything secret is the best thing he can do.

Emergency exit is a novel about many things. Immediately on the surface are three large elements. The first is Charles and the relationship he always longed for, but never had, with his daughter. He tried to talk to her once when she was a toddler. It happened quickly and it didn't end well. He kept the stuffed elephant he tried to give her for years, eventually giving it to his mother in the hope that something to care for would help with her dementia.

The second element is belonging. Charles has always been an outsider: “My mother and I were not Penobscot.” But he has always felt connected to the reservation and its people, and he knows that place or having two Native parents isn't what makes or breaks an identity: “I think the reservation is what makes an Indian an Indian , means once again slaughter the natives who don't populate it.” There are many native people who don't live on reservations, and it's great to see fiction about reservation life giving these native people the recognition they deserve .

Finally, this is a novel of family drama that explores how the death of Charles' stepfather broke up his relationship with his mother and how Mary's absence didn't make him forget he had a daughter.

Immediately beneath these three elements lie many more: alcoholism, the way loneliness can shape a life, the need to escape, how not accepting homosexuality can destroy a childhood, and more. Talty weaves all these things together into a gripping tapestry that feels unique when it comes to universal topics. In less capable hands this novel could have been a mess, but Talty's voice is always clear and direct, and that makes the story flow.

Some writers talk about writing when they don't talk about writing, and Talty does that beautifully in this novel. “Perhaps we are merely translators of creation,” Charles thinks early in the novel, “putting things like granite, oak, elephant, or corn into the language in which they wish to be expressed, to give them bodies of sound, so that they are measurable. .” Emergency exit is about being and not being, about messing up and dealing with the ghosts of the past. None of these things are measurable, but the author finds a way to measure his words, and that makes this a remarkable story.

“We can complicate things, offer explanations as grand as carved marble, but sometimes simplicity is best and truest.” This line from the novel describes what Talty's prose accomplishes Emergency exit. This is a story about very complicated things that is very easy to read. That beautiful simplicity is no easy task, and the fact that Talty pulled it off in his debut novel undoubtedly supports the statement he made with his brilliant collection of short stories: Night of the Living Rez: Talty is an excellent new voice with a lot to say.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on X, formerly Twitter, at @Gabino_Iglesias.

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