At sea, a group of men struggles to reel in a marlin—a struggle that lands two brothers in the water, “shimmering into a deeper twilight blue.” 20 years later, one of those men, Val, is married, has one son, and lives comfortably in Arizona. Yet he cannot escape the haunting memory of that day with the marlin—that day when his brother, Davis, drowned.
C.E. Poverman’s long, expansive novel Love by Drowning anchors itself in the traditions of noir. The twisting plot follows Val’s attempts to locate and confront a woman named Lee Anne, who has been sending him mysterious and threatening postcards since the death of his brother. But Poverman’s real subject is the past, into which the novel’s middle stretch sinks, detailing the emotional triangle of Val, Davis, and Lee Anne.
This portion, nearly a third of the book, takes place mostly in Florida, and it has the same sun-baked feel of some classic 70s crime films, like Night Moves or Straight Time. Here, Poverman unleashes onto the reader Lee Anne, his most wholly original creation. She’s a hairdresser who looks like “a cartoon cat hit by a jolt of electricity, tail in a socket,” and she has an odd habit of referring to herself in the third person. Her behavior is worldly and innocent, vicious and fragile. Nothing about her quite comes together, as though she has constructed her own personality from rearranged shards of a broken mirror. Lee Anne is the femme fatale as cubist painting.
Poverman understands the importance of precise detail, as when Val finds one of his wife’s used tampons in the toilet and, unfazed, flushes it—a small moment that, somehow, sketches out decades of intimacy while also gaining a reader’s trust. The author knows this world.
But he also has an instinctive understanding of when to amp up the style. Whenever Lee Anne hijacks the book from Val’s limited omniscience, Poverman drowns the reader in stream-of-consciousness that feels genuinely unhinged. Interlocking points of view provide LBD with a Hitchcockian sort of suspense, as the reader starts to see more of the big picture than Val does. Poverman handles all of these shifts with elegance and skill.
When the novel hews closely to the contours of its characters, it mesmerizes. But the final stretch feels occasionally overstuffed, especially due to the introduction of a new character—a detective who seems to arrive from a lesser novel, providing some convenient solutions to problems while temporarily rupturing the sophistication of the storytelling. But this rote fulfillment of generic expectations seems beside the point; Poverman understands his true subject—the gashes of the past that have scarred Val’s soul—and the novel ends with Lee Anne’s voice: haunting final words.
The plot is lurid and, at times, over-the-top (in the manner of much of the best mystery fiction). But Poverman—whose work has won the Iowa Short Fiction Award and been nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize—is more literary than generic. He paints his characters vividly and, as he unpeels more layers of past, makes even the most unexpected revelations seem inevitable. Love by Drowning recalls the poetry of John Updike and the beautiful trash of Elmore Leonard simultaneously.