The Used World
By Haven Kimmel
Free Press, 320 pp.
- Photo by Roger Haile/ Free Press
- Durham author Haven Kimmel
Haven Kimmel lives in Durham, but her heart remains in the rural Indiana of her upbringing. It was the stage for her pair of hit memoirs, A Girl Named Zippy and She Got Up Off the Couch, and for her two prior novels, The Solace of Leaving Early and Something Rising (Light and Swift), which comprise a loose trilogy along with The Used World.
The Used World's action unfolds in the fictional town of Jonah, Ind., a rural and economically depressed American enclave. Interchangeable with any number of small, stagnant towns, Jonah is where the American dream goes to die: The appearance of maintaining retrograde values is more important than their practice behind closed doors, and only the bleakest fringe of modernity—disposable, anonymous strip mall culture— has found purchase. The town is simultaneously cloistered from and hopelessly enmeshed within the world at large. Not for nothing is it called "Jonah"—Kimmel isn't one to shy away from grand Biblical allusions.
If Jonah is a town trapped in amber, this impression hangs even more heavily around the antique store from which the novel takes its title, where the past accumulates in a physical manifestation of Jonah's citizens' mental baggage. Kimmel expertly draws this suffocating environment and the psychic toll it extracts from its denizens. The three women who work at the store, the novel's main characters, are freighted with so much history that the future seems null and void.
Hazel Hunnicutt is the store's proprietor: an eccentric elder whose interest in astrology is a forward-looking defense mechanism against a past riddled with dark secrets. Claudia Modjeski, 40-something, is androgynous, spiritually ambiguous and deeply lonely; her only real confidante is the leftist intellectual minister Amos Townsend, the protagonist from The Solace of Leaving Early. Rebekah Shook, nearing 30, is imperiled by her villainous father's stern Pentecostal religion, an unplanned impregnation by a frivolous deadbeat, and her subsequent ouster from her church and father's house.
Temporally hopscotching between the deeply buried traumas of these women's pasts and their precarious presents (where the introduction of two babies into their lives brings them together and frees them from emotional stasis), The Used World makes a case for the improvisational nature of family and the necessity of re-imagining personal history to foster catharsis. It makes its roundabout way to an operatic dénouement where all the novel's loose threads are tied into a neat bow, and we learn that the protagonists' connection goes deeper than proximity and necessity.
Throughout the novel, Kimmel's prose is surefooted and clear, leavened with arresting images: the racks of clothing in the antique store are like "wineskins to be filled with a new vintage." The book is well-paced: Its protracted remembrances and ruminations are girded by dramatic real-time events (which are usually orchestrated by Hazel, who's meant to be endearing but comes off as rather diabolical) that always arrive just when the story begins to verge on the amorphous.
But a wholly successful novel is symphonic, with a variety of parts unfolding in complex harmony, and despite the inspired melodies that flit through The Used World, a number of sour notes infiltrate Kimmel's orchestration. All in all, the book winds up feeling overdone. Its tone is inconsistent, moving abruptly from treacle to bluster: Rebekah's Pentecostal past and Claudia's ongoing debate with minister Amos afford Kimmel plenty of opportunities for incongruous psycho-spiritual filibustering. The characters suddenly forsake their homespun voices to make way for pages of sulfurous Old Testament boilerplate, replete with Random Capitalizations of Important Words.
The characterization is also problematic: Rather than drawing her protagonists as either metaphorically outsized or intimately realistic, Kimmel goes for both and winds up with erratically behaving caricatures. We're meant to identify with them, but they're so belabored that we lose any sense of the real and perceive only Kimmel, writing like mad (although one feels a note of satisfaction that Hazel the Svengali gets her plainly visible strings jerked around by a manipulator of her own).
Hazel is almost satirically wise and insufferably condescending, with a penchant for Machiavellian intrigues. She often lapses into oracular speech that would be a stretch at Delphi, much less in rural Indiana. Rebekah is too childlike and ingenuous for even a circumscribed fundamentalist upbringing to rationalize; it's easy to imagine some of her dialogue issuing from a talking animal in a Disney film. Claudia is the most sympathetic and believable—at least until she protestingly but immediately agrees to keep the neglected infant that Hazel kidnaps and foists upon her without warning or impetus.
Apparent impetus, anyway: For the seemingly omniscient Hazel, such outrageous acts are all part of a plan to give Claudia and Rebekah what even they don't know they need. It's the most egregious deus ex machina in a book riddled with them. These instances of improbable plotting drive The Used World forward, but comprise a shaky scaffold from which to suspend our disbelief.