There is a great deal of good news and bad news in this, Joan Barfoot's ninth novel. The book begins with bad newsłthe worst news of the book, in fact. Isla, a middle-aged partner in an advertising firm, heads into town with her second husband, Lyle, to get celebratory ice creams cones in honour of Lyle's successful attempt at lowering his cholesterol. Lyle waits in the truck while Isla goes in for the cones, stepping right into the middle of what appears to be an armed robbery. As Isla instinctively turns to run, the skinny young man with the gun pulls the trigger, shooting her in the back. With help from Lyle, Isla pieces this chain of events together from the fragments of her memory, as she lies paralyzed in a hospital bed.
From too little information, suddenly too much. Vertebrae. Surgery. Bullet. Not an ending to something strange and confusing, but the beginning of something too awful to contemplate.
One of those moments when life turns completely ass-over-teakettle, in no good way, no good way at all.
What most astonishes Isla is how this could come at a moment when her life was just beginning, after much darkness, to allow in light. Her first husband is a wretch, her son is a recovering heroin addict, and her daughter, who now calls herself Starglow, is in the grip of a neo-cult called Serenity. Life with Lyle appeared until this moment to be a slow turning of her fortunes.
As Isla struggles to absorb the calamity that has befallen her, the reader discovers that the shooting is set to destroy the life of one of the robbery participants. For Roddy, the boy with the gun, the shooting was the instantaneous, terrible obliteration of the path he thought would bring him out of misery into happiness. Years earlier, Roddy and his father moved in with Roddy's grandmother. Roddy's mother was a severe manic depressive who was hospitalized when Roddy was very young, and who committed suicide a few years later by throwing herself from an overpass, an event kept from Roddy for years. The robbery of the ice cream shop was a fake, a staged robbery meant to yield him and his best friend, Mike, enough cash to get an apartment in the city where they could begin completely new lives.
The novel, in alternating chapters, follows Isla and Roddy as they struggle with the awful new reality of their lives. Barfoot is a highly skilled, solid writerła real writer. Too many contemporary writers, secretly or not-so-secretly ashamed of the perceived triviality of culture in their own time, present incorruptibly somber, painstakingly neutered versions of a non-existent past, and/or affect the sort of Platonic, high-minded tone appropriate to literature meant ęfor the ages.' They write books they think can sit comfortably on the shelf with the works of Tolstoy and Flaubert and James and the likełnot due to a comparable gracing of genius, but because no busy librarian can guess in what era the books were written, or even in which original language.
Barfoot's writing is refreshingly unprecious. She is interested in lives as they are lived, which is not to say that the thematic weight of Critical Injuries is slight. Right from the book's title, this novel's primary concern is with the concentric circles of damage created by unforeseen accidents and acts of cruelty or thoughtlessness. The pivotal shooting has the feel of an experiment set into motion. It is fascinating to see how much Barfoot can draw from this small set of characters, so unexpectedly thrown together. Rather than spin empty, static prose poems in place of human psychology, Barfoot stays close to the ground, allowing her characters' humanity to power the engine that drives the plot's subsequent events. With the exception of a rather awkward and unconvincing coming together of Roddy and Starglow nTe Alix, Barfoot resists openly nudging her story along to its conclusion. Both Isla and Roddy, one paralyzed, the other incarcerated, have a lot of time to reflect upon their lives up to that point. These reflections form the bulk of the novel, as it moves back and forth between Roddy and Isla, their respective past and present. Barfoot handles this movement with hardly a sign of effort, creating a narrative that is never less than enjoyable.
That Barfoot is such a skilled, entertaining writer is the good news. The bad news is that all of that is not really enough. The control and steadiness she brings to her narrative precludes the kind of loosey-goosey instability, imbalance and, above all, risk that begets the distinction between good and great, brightness and brilliancełboth in art and in people. Isla and Roddy and the people surrounding them are given to us through patient portrayal, a steady filling in of pasts with pain. There are no caricatures or stickmen among the novel's characters. Barfoot shows all a rare sympathy. What is lacking is passion. Beyond sympathy, you never get a real sense that Barfoot loves any of her characters. Certainly, none are hated, not even Isla's asshole first husband, who builds a small office-supply empire, only to have it destroyed by his disgusting habit of fondling young, female employees. His downfall is presented as merely pathetic. The effect it has on Isla and their two children is more witnessed than felt. The book's resolution is risky, if only because it is never really in doubt, having been telegraphed from nearly the first chapter on, but Barfoot cannot make it rise above what it appears to beła nice, big, happy ending. It may be that a preoccupation with the healing process, in evidence here too often, crowds out the injuries themselves; despite all of the awful things that happen to the characters, there is never a sense that very much is at stake. Roddy's essential, if overshadowed, goodness is clear from the moment we first meet him, while Isla always seems more annoyed and frustrated by her fate than enraged. Lyle is strong and supportive throughout, and Isla's son is shown already well on the road to recovery and redemption. Only her daughter remains a mess, and even she quickly shows that she isn't simply foolish and nanve, but merely waiting to discover something to focus on more in tune with her over-sensitive nature.
All of this renders the book's emotional terrain somewhat flat. Barfoot's measured strokes don't allow for the kind of piercing insight only possible through the odd, intemperate jab. It is a bit like watching a race where all the runners cross the finish line together. Barfoot's characters are carefully constructed, her story expertly paced, but the book never truly comes alive. Ultimately, despite the book's numerous strengths, Critical Injuries too often feels like a well-written, minutely detailed outline to a much more ambitious novel. ņ