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Eugene Weekly : Books : 10.19.06

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Torch loses its heat but not its heart.


TORCH, fiction by Cheryl Strayed. Houghton Mifflin, 2005. Hardcover, $24.

The thing with writing about intense events — birth, death, divorce — is that coming down from them and moving into the ripples, the aftereffects, causes sleepless nights for writers. Often, novelists write instead only about the ripples; a terrible, life-altering event has occurred before the tale begins. Portland author Cheryl Strayed's Torch starts with a diagnosis of terminal cancer for one character and sustains intensity for about half the book until the "terminal" part comes into play. Then those left after Teresa Rae Wood dies — husband Bruce, 17-year-old Josh, 20-year-old Claire — screw up, screw around, avoid themselves and each other. Like all life in the wake of anguish, it's not pretty.

Strayed writes the details of shock and grief as well as she evokes the specifics of a small town in intensely cold northern Minnesota, where even the sad-sack port town of Duluth seems like a big place to be, a place to try on new identities while waiting for a loved one to die in the city hospital. But when that loved one — who provides one of the book's most searing scenes — leaves the stage, the characters and the book lose momentum.

Bruce's longing and desire for a specific solution to his lonely agony is compelling and heartbreaking, but he soon drops out of the picture as sullen, idiotic Josh and too-competent Claire take over the story. After meandering through the perfectly-depicted paralysis of despair and the bizarre skips of time when grief stretches into a frayed sense of invincibility, their tales end with a whimper. Not sentimental in the least, and not interested in easy transcendence despite simpering blurbs on the jacket, Torch depicts the betrayals and reversals that come when body and brain can't quite accept harsh reality.    

Cheryl Strayed reads at 7 pm Oct. 26 at the UO Bookstore.




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