Reviewed by Joe Bisciotti
“Still in his wings, the boy turned a winch’s crank. His eyes held close as he considered the simple gears. Eli knelt by his side. Mark’s days were ripe with wonder. Through mere proximity to this process, Eli had become a richer man, one humbled by thoughtless gifts.”
Curtis Smith’s Lovepain, out now from Braddock Avenue Books, is a melancholy and oftentimes beautiful meditation on a family unexpectedly torn apart. The novel centers on Eli, a social worker and father, who is repeatedly forced to confront the cavernous sinkhole lurking beneath his typical suburban life. Metaphorically, but also literally.
A sinkhole gapes open in the front yard of Eli’s quiet home in an unnamed Allegheny suburb, mere hours after his wife Kate admits to an affair, leaving their family in the middle of the night. In a day, everything changes: Eli becomes a single father, packing lunches, working overtime, directing the church play, all the while lying to his parents and son, Mark, about the whereabouts of his wife. He tells himself he does this to protect his son, but Mark is a precocious and curious child, and lying becomes harder for Eli as the days go on.
The novel moves at a quick pace; its section breaks often matching its snapshot-like prose. And despite the difficult and painful world these characters inhabit, the book remains an absolute page-turner. Eli and Mark’s days are marked by small, beautiful moments in the minutiae of a day together—a trip to an abandoned fire tower to go birdwatching or constructing an angel costume together for an upcoming holiday play. But jump to the next page and you will find Eli leaving work late, only to be violently accosted by the jealous, misguided boyfriend of one of his clients. Lovepain finds its home in the everyday tinted by tragedy.
The routine of father and son’s days together manifests in the wintery Pennsylvania countryside. The Alleghenies are painted in monochrome here, and streaked with rain and snow. Smith’s staccato descriptions of their world read like photos taken from the window of a moving car:
Slate clouds stretched toward the horizon. A somber glow. Mist above a pond. An overturned rowboat in tall grass. The first hard frost predicted for tonight. Ahead waited the grays and browns of the Pennsylvania winter, the hemlocks’ stubborn green, February’s white fields. The months of hibernation.
Smith’s Lovepain elegantly meanders through this stark landscape. He marks the land with beacons of quiet beauty and shocking darkness. His words strike deep at the root of this family, dissecting their pain, affection, and longing page after page. But at its heart, it’s a story of a father and son navigating a new life together, one of shared loneliness, nursing each other through the sting of abandonment. This balance between love and pain, always barely held in equilibrium, forms the word Eli thinks to himself when he looks at his son. He chants it to himself. “Lovepain, lovepain.” It’s a bittersweet anthem Eli clings to in moments like these:
Eli held out his arms. Mark leapt, hurling himself into the void. Eli waiting, the injured father waiting to catch his injured son. Eli happy Mark’s heart held no fear. For a brief, wonderful moment, the boy flew like the birds he loved but would soon outgrow.
Lovepain was published by Braddock Avenue Books in March 2018. To find out more the title visit their website here.