The dark side of the 1970’s – family disintegration, existential angst, and other snakes in Southern California’s Eden emerge in Sumioka’s debut novel….
Mark Sumioka’s The Threshold of Insult is the first full length novel from a writer whose gritty, realistic fiction has graced the pages of a number of literary journals, including Scholars and Rogues. The same skills of capturing characters’ distinctive nuances and situations’ subtle breaking points that characterize Sumioka’s short fiction serve him well in this first attempt at fiction’s major genre.
The novel recounts the story of an unhappy family, Carl and Jessica Rose and their son Randy. Carl hates his job and feels trapped by his marriage and son. His wife Jessica, called Jess through most of the novel, feels trapped as Carl does, her suffering exacerbated by her low self-esteem and sense of dissatisfaction in her role as traditional housewife. Their son Randy, troubled by the tensions in his parents’ relationship, has his young life complicated and ultimately damaged by the unhealthy attentions of a seemingly kind neighbor, Van Witherspoon. The complex dynamics of the relationships of these four characters form the crux of the novel’s main story line.
But there’s much more to the novel than this engrossing (if troubling) central narrative. Sumioka does a good job of allowing us to see Carl Rose’s decline from successful executive to unemployed, unfaithful, injured (he’s lost an eye in a drunken bar fight) misanthrope – and his last desperate act that both brings him a form of redemption and raises questions about what we mean when we talk about protecting our family. Paralleling that story arc is the story of his wife Jess who finds herself through working as a waitress and manicurist and whose rise to self-actualization and self-respect counters her husband’s decline.
Then there is Randy – in some ways the novel’s most intriguing character. Here Sumioka’s considerable talent in creating and developing characters asserts itself most strongly. Randy is as well actualized a character as any of the children in the stories of J.D. Salinger. I mean that as high praise, for, other than Twain, no one in American writing does kids better – and Mark’s depiction of both Randy and his best buddy, the bratty Todd, is spot on. And Randy’s ambivalence and confusion about his treatment and manipulation by Van Witherspoon, the novel’s villain conveys both the toughness and the naivete of childhood that we’ve all experienced.
Of course, being a first novel, there are some areas where the work could be stronger. Among the characters, Van Witherspoon, the novel’s villain, is by far the weakest. Some of this we can attribute to the extreme difficulty of depicting a pederast with humanity. Sumioka makes a very good try, but Van’s character ultimately falls flat, perhaps because he is such a distasteful character that we recoil from even his more innocent behaviors – and his suffering at the end of the novel draws no sympathy from the reader – though one feels that the author is trying to help us see Witherspoon less as a monster, more as a deeply troubled person whose behavior is somehow out of his control. Though it doesn’t quite work, one has to admire the bravery of Sumioka’s effort.
There is also another minor issue – the latter chapters of the novel have a tendency towards opening with philosophizing passages that sometimes slow the action. A couple of these passages are wonderful even if they do make the reader pause – but others fall into the trap of feeling like the author is telling instead of showing – which the ensuing action renders unnecessary.
On balance, though, this is an impressive debut. Mark Sumioka is a writer well worth checking out.
You can buy The Threshold of Insult (currently in ebook format only) by clicking here.