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Loose Change

A new novel’s conflict plays out in dollars and cents

Abundance by Jakob Guanzon. Graywolf Press, 304 pages.

Even novelists who experiment with time—Nicholson Baker and his capacious minutes, Virginia Woolf and her fleet, war-long decades—have to consider the effects of its passing. It’s a challenge, and maybe not a worthwhile one, to devote two-hundred-or-so pages to a single, static instant. I think this is what a former professor of mine meant when he said novels are about change, or at least the potential for change, over time.

Although his prescription makes artistic sense, it also makes me uncomfortable. Many of my own family’s conflicts are habitual, are systemic or environmental, are struggles with foregone conclusions. My uncle whose medical debt is bottomless. My cousin who’s in and out—and in and out—of jail. My ninety-five-year-old grandmother whose Gulfside home, which her husband, a carpenter, helped build, is threatened each year by a new storm that’s really the same as the old storm with a new name. Time passes, but change is slow and mounting, not loud or vivid, like drama. These aren’t quite my stories, but the thought of them being unsuited to literature is an acute frustration.

How, then, to turn a circular struggle into a story with tension and movement without falsely limning a path out, the narrative equivalent of the bootstraps myth? With his debut novel, Abundance, Jakob Guanzon makes a clever attempt. At the start of each chapter, there’s a dollar amount in place of a title: $0.00, $20.00, $7.55. Looming over the action is the protagonist’s net worth, making his poverty specific, a conflict with movement in dollars and cents.

These aren’t quite my stories, but the thought of them being unsuited to literature is an acute frustration.

The book follows Henry, a father who’s reacquainting himself with his son, Junior, after five years in jail. On paper, his crime is selling opioids, but his regret is more personal than that. When his friend Al, an archetypal salesman, approaches him with the plan, Henry has for the first time in his life been in a state of calm. He and Junior’s mother, Michelle, who he’d lusted after covertly in rehab, have slowly furnished their single-wide trailer with the trappings of permanence. Henry basks in that permanence; he’d been used to losing things. His mother, an economist who was only laissez-faire when it came to parenting, died when he was young. His father raised him while working full-time, and the double shift left him curt and depleted. He wants to be a different kind of father to Junior, to provide him with the warmth and constancy his own childhood lacked.

And for a while, he does. When his father dies, Henry is left with a modest windfall: almost $9,000. The writing in this section is soft, impressionistic. Henry cradles Michelle’s pregnant belly. He splurges on real wood floors. But Michelle, a Lady Macbeth in cut-offs and work boots, wants more. “Take money to make money,” she says to Henry, encouraging him to back Al’s pill press. “And look who got some now, right?”

When the plan fails, and Henry, after serving time, winds up living with Junior in a pickup truck, barely affording the gas it takes to get his son to school, he chastises himself: Why couldn’t he have settled for just enough? The arc of the novel follows him on his quest to wrangle permanence once again as he examines his own childhood, the source of his scarcity mindset. Over the course of a day, Henry and Junior visit McDonald’s to celebrate Junior’s birthday with a drippy cone; Walmart to pick out a discount wrestling figurine; and a motel to clean up for an interview. If he can land this job, Henry thinks, order will be restored.

This is a conventional enough plot: a man oppressed by invisible, pervasive systems tries to escape them. When depicting such attempted escapes, realist novelists tend to rely on a handful of devices: earnest success stories, as in Q&A, the novel that inspired Slumdog Millionaire; scamming à la Gatsby; shrugging, jokey fatalism, as in George Saunders’s stories; or searching for beauty in the otherwise sordid, as in Jesmyn Ward’s Mississippi epic Salvage the Bones. Guanzon’s story takes the latter tack, joining a tradition of writers whose characters are too tired to laugh off their troubles. These protagonists are stuck, homebound but dreaming, like Lucia Berlin’s cleaning woman whose optimism is restored when she helps her client find a missing puzzle piece (“sky with a little bit of maple”), or Bryan Washington’s queer boy whose friend gets deported days after teaching him a magic trick: to form a star on his palm by folding his hand just so, leaving creases (“I couldn’t see shit,” the narrator says. “I called it amazing anyways”). These stories tend to rely on moments of quiet lyricism, rather than rollicking journeys, as a means of temporary escape.

Henry, too, tends toward the lyric, even the sublime, under duress. This results in some of the book’s most overwrought passages: Guanzon lacks Washington’s and Ward’s subtlety. “The sun had climbed higher, rinsing the grapefruit dawn into a cloudless cerulean,” the narrator, who speaks in a third-person close to Henry’s point of view, observes while he’s driving. That Henry is aware of his own sentimentality helps complicate his character, even if it doesn’t redeem all the excesses of Guanzon’s prose. He’s “not quite sure whether it’s funny or sad how sustained deprivation turns even the most commonplace amenities into luxuries,” and “he wonders if he someday manages to restore comfort to a constant, will he still observe his surroundings with a similar dopey awe.”

When Henry’s eye is turned toward other people’s excesses, his voice gets riled, covetous, angry, sharp. Back at Walmart, losing steam, talking himself into shoplifting medicine to lower his son’s fever, he rants about the patriotic clothes on display. “Cotton T-shirts of white, blue, and gray depict bald eagles gazing stoically at unoccupied armpits, while others fly the flag, Old Glory either flattened into a rectangle or else curled by an unseeable breeze,” he observes. “Born Free. Freedom Isn’t Free. FREEDOM, plain and simple. God Bless America. 1776. No mention whatsoever of any truths held self-evident or rights unalienable.” Guanzon’s lyricism, when drawn out by a subject of Henry’s ire, is no longer vague, “dopey,” or cliched, but particular and therefore moving. As Henry grows more desperate to help his son, his politics, inherited from his left-leaning economist mother, are revealed with urgency, his language tightens, and we feel his desperation alongside him.

In his repetitions and his curtness, we also hear echoes of the father he tried not to become. He seems stuck. Time passes; nothing changes except mounting pressure. Finally, Henry acts out of necessity. He’s a person of color with a criminal record, so there are consequences. He jangles the last of the change in his pocket, repeating the amount in his head like an invocation: “One quarter, two nickels, three pennies. . .”

Guanzon is careful to show that, for his characters, hard work doesn’t yield stability or its associated fruits.

The book’s conceit—to make Henry’s financial standing as present in readers’ minds as it would be in his—is smart and often affecting. It lends gravity to decisions Henry has to make every day: whether to splurge on a gas station banana, or whether to keep eating ketchup packets. But sometimes the listed dollar amount feels tacked on, especially in moments when the exchange of cash is already tense, like when a motel worker scams Henry out of twenty hard-earned dollars. When for a short while he’s $50,000 richer, suddenly, he feels god-like, infallible. On a date with a pregnant Michelle at Red Lobster, martinis and wine and coconut shrimp and run-on sentences abound. But Henry is also baffled by his good fortune; “he and Al had put in the hours but hardly the sweat,” he observes, noting a disconnect between labor and money.

That disconnect is the book’s true subject. Money troubles are as old as fiction, but classically they’re the consequence of some personal vice. In War and Peace, Nikolai’s impulses lead him into gambling debt; in Middlemarch, Fred Vincy’s debts are owed to his expensive taste. Debt is cast as a moral failing, or at least the result of personal choices. Not so in Abundance, where Guanzon is careful to show that, for his characters, hard work doesn’t yield stability or its associated fruits. We see Henry lift, drive, repair, scrub, and care for his son. And we see the cash in his pocket fluctuate, independent of this work. In fact, the biggest fluctuations—the pill press earnings, his father’s willed assets—have the least to do with his daily efforts. Henry, then, has little ability to make or save money, and, as a consequence, to realize his dream of a comfortable family life.

In The Antinomies of Realism, Fredric Jameson writes that social conditions since the nineteenth century have done away with protagonicity in literature, or an emphasis on conventional heroes who go on journeys, who overcome clear obstacles, who make clear choices, and by doing so demonstrate their values. In other words, pervasive and therefore almost invisible struggles—the impersonal nature of work, to name just one—have uncoupled cause from effect, made choices feel not value-based but arbitrary, in fiction as in life. So, protagonists in new books who have the power to change their circumstances are just a nostalgic attempt to return to a simpler time. This might be a little reductive—surely moments of drama, of the sensical movement through linear time, of cause and effect still exist someplace. What about love, or heartbreak? What about feuds, friendships, cancellations? But when it comes to stories about work and money, Jameson’s point is clear.

Rather than showcasing heroes who go on journeys and realize their fates, Jameson appreciates novelists who are able to describe, in sensuous detail, the rich, fleshy experience of living. The fabric of a bargain funeral suit, bought a size up, to grow into; the wet corner of an almost-empty ketchup packet; the stickiness of melted soft serve; a DVD bargain bin runneth over; a love note folded and folded to its most compact size. Given what they’re up against, Guanzon’s characters may be fated not to change as they’d hoped. But there’s lightness, and momentary escape, in what they can see, taste, touch, imagine.