cover image Perfect Agreement

Perfect Agreement

Michael Downing. Counterpoint LLC, $22 (224pp) ISBN 978-1-887178-45-7

""We have to learn to integrate independence and dependence.... When we do it well, we achieve grace."" So endeth the lesson on clauses, one of the many English-language rules that punctuate each chapter of this graceful novel by the author of A Narrow Time. Mark Sternum has spent his 36 years indulging his quirks and pedantically keeping the world at bay. His family, his lover and his friends are all ""far-flung"" in his eyes, a situation that changes abruptly when he's fired as the director of writing programs at a small Boston college more interested in social work and hand-holding than in teaching basic skills. As if that weren't enough, a mysterious stranger, who turns out to be Mark's father, suddenly appears on his doorstep. Thomas Sternum had abandoned his family for the second time soon after Mark's birth in 1960, presumably to join up with one of the dwindling communities of Shakers (the first time he abandoned his family, 20 years earlier, he went off to photograph the Shakers' vanishing world). Now calling himself ""Brother Thomas S.,"" he arrives with a thirst for bourbon and a tale to tell, the story of old Sister Celia--the second-to-last survivor of a Shaker ""Family"" in western Massachusetts. Sister Celia's story, which is seamlessly woven in and out of the main plot, obsesses Mark. Like him, Sister Celia approached middle age ""unmoved"" until one night, in 1903, she saw out of the Meeting House window a savagely beaten black man running from his pursuers. The Family misinterpreted this sighting as the manifestation of Celia's long-awaited ""Gift""--a vision of the ""Negro Jesus,"" come to redeem the world. The resolution of this plot line is perhaps too complicated, but this should not turn readers away from a novel of such compassion and wit. In its short span, Downing combines one man's tale of loss and acceptance, the lost rhythms of the Shaker world and the delights of the English language. (Nov.)