Harry, revised

This one novel by Mark Sarvas is, oddly, two novels. Or rather, it seems to be two different ways of telling two different parts of the same story.

Harry is a hapless widower with an eye for a young woman who works at the diner he frequents. In his effort to win her favor, he begins to help the young woman’s coworker with more than a few of the hardships she faces in her life. As you might expect, all of this rebounds to plenty of difficulties in Harry’s life.

Harry gets himself into one fix after another, yet he always seems to get extracted (yes, passive voice is appropriate here) through no effort or worth of his own. Harry is an odd mix. He’s a doctor who doesn’t seem to have any patients. He’s clueless at the same time he’s conniving. He’s passive and active. Bumbling and accomplished. It’s all good fun for about two thirds of the narrative (though there are plenty of hints of bigger, uglier matters in the mix).

As the story progresses, we learn that Harry is not altogether the blameless goof he first appears, and he seems headed for an unpleasant showdown with his dead wife’s vengeful sister. At about the two-thirds point, the narrative voice shifts significantly. Until that point it was comical and even rollicking, but then it turns serious as the various plot devices jokingly planted earlier begin to bear their unfortunate fruit. Yet even from these Harry manages to make mostly unearned escapes from justice.

I found the voice shift to be sufficiently annoying to prevent me from fully enjoying the novel. It could have been one way or the other. Sarvas seems to be a master of both voices, but to graft them together as he did left me dissatisfied. Perhaps this was intentional, as a way to mirror the seriousness that Harry needed to begin living his life with. I don’t know.

Even with the schizophrenia of the narrative voice, the writing in this novel is better than 99 percent of the novels on the shelves beside it. It reminded me in a way of John Irving’s first novel, The Water-Method Man. I’ll certainly line up to read the next novel Mark Sarvas produces.

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