Why the Tree Loves the Ax

Jim Lewis, Author
Jim Lewis, Author Crown Publishers $22 (288p) ISBN 978-0-609-60109-9
Reviewed on: 12/29/1997
Release date: 01/01/1998
""I was 27 years old and I had lost my way,"" confesses Caroline Harrison, the seductive, shape-shifting narrator of Lewis's second novel (after Sister), minutes before totaling her car outside the remote city of Sugartown, Tex. Thus begins a hallucinatory tale of violence and disguises, spiritual disorientation and wanderlust that will eventually carry Caroline from a troubled marriage in Manhattan across the country and back. In chapters framed as responses to the interrogations of a voice whose identity is concealed until the last chapter, Caroline gradually reveals, in an affectless manner, the patterns of self-destruction and self-invention that define her life. Recovering from her injuries in a hospital in Sugartown, she forges an application for a job as an orderly at a retirement home called Eden View, a haunted purgatory of aging transients. She soon befriends two Sugartown loners, Bonnie, a free-spirited bartender, and Billy, a violently deranged Eden View denizen, who presents Caroline with a shoebox he asks her to deliver to friends on the outside while forbidding her to look at its contents. When a riot erupts in Sugartown, Caroline hears imaginary voices directing her to kill a policeman with a baseball bat; when Bonnie dies in the ensuing violence, Caroline assumes her identity and flees north towards a showdown with Billy's circle--three fugitives and an angelic child printing counterfeit money in upstate New York. Lewis's fluid evocation of the shattered lives and landscapes Caroline traverses is occasionally upset by passages of overheated sex and baffling dream visions; and what seems a gradual, suspenseful build-up to the real story behind Caroline's madness remains frustratingly unrealized. But the story line's very unreliability, and what it suggests about how we view our lives, is certainly as much Lewis's point as his protagonist's sad odyssey through the perdition of contemporary America. (Feb.)
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