- Past Imperfect
Mel Bosworth's Freight is in some ways a throwback, a sweet-souled, old-fashioned book wearing the armor (or maybe the Nehru jacket) of postmodernism. Bearing a dedication that the reader at first presumes must be dripping with irony, "For everyone and everything, ever," it proceeds to make that cynical reader half-believe—but half is too weak a fraction; I'm inclined to say 94.7% believe—not only in the sincerity of such a sentiment, but even in its wisdom.
The nameless narrator of Freight is graying as he heads into early middle age; he grapples with alcohol abuse, past violence, the ambiguous legacies of childhood, the mostly menial jobs he cycles through or that cycle through him, the places he briefly or lingeringly alights...and most of all with the freight of past loves, in particular his recurrent/enduring one with a woman, likewise nameless, who's too scarred by trauma to trust him or anyone else. Yet the book's utterly consistent tone of shellshocked, bombed-out thoughtfulness gives it surprising clarity of focus; rarely has a drifter seemed less a man adrift. The same can be said of the book's strategy line by line, fragment by fragment: The narrator appears to meander, but he also insists in a calm, ultimately convincing way that meandering is not only a suitable purpose but a good one, perhaps the best and only purpose of a life. Whatever the banality of the moment is (the curving slices of onion at Burger King, usable in a pinch as woolly-mammoth tusks; the sad intimacy and fellowship of all the shoeless saps in the airport security line), it gets taken up with the same tone and granted the same apparent weight as more "consequential" things: a brutal sex attack; a childhood friend's death; the harrowing, poignant story of the protagonist's stint as an orderly in an old folks' home.
The result is a portrait not of a man doing but of a man musing. Freight is not only a plotless novel, but almost an eventless one, a meditative sifting of memories in which the only events narrated are past. (One is tempted by cliché, that seducer, to say "safely past"—but that they are only unsafely past, that memory is not a repository or satchel but the sum and swirling center of who we are, is Bosworth's point.)
The book's form is somewhere between innovative and "innovative," and I'm sorry to say that for this reader, the balance swung a little too far toward the latter: the self-vaunting, with-quotes kind. To emphasize that memory is a thing untamable and defiant of order, and to let it be known that linearity is an artifice at best and a damned lie at worst, the novelist has opted for a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure format, in which there are frequent marginal cross-indexings that allow a reader to pass, say, from our hero at roadside on page 88, phoning friends because he's out of gas, to our hero on page 180, lured by romantic hopes into braving sushi, which he fears will run him out of gas and kill him. The formal play seems, to me at least, beside the point. Fortunately, beside the point doesn't mean undermining the point—it's just that the unorthodox shape of the narrative makes the same argument that the text does, but in a way that seems artier and more gimmicky.
And the narrative itself is mostly fresh and poignant. The voice in Freight insistently and effectively denies—even debunks—any differences between the physical and metaphysical. The narrator relies on verbs customarily used in both literal and figurative contexts, like "find," "lose," "give," and "take," but he uses them in ways that complicate—and eventually declare irrelevant—the difference between literal and figurative. This is especially true of the verb "put down," used here variously to mean consuming/internalizing, insulting (in the sense that to think you've fully consumed something or...