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SEP 21, 2011


The dictionary defines “inverted” as reversed, upturned, and this aptly describes the goings on, again and again in John Dalton’s latest novel, The Inverted Forest, an impressive follow-up to his award winning debut, Heaven Lake. That the two stories are quite diverse in setting and subject serves the reader well, as Heaven Lake, set in Taiwan and China, was one of those wondrous, luminous novels difficult to surpass. The Inverted Forest takes place in 1996 in a rural Missouri summer camp, a sun-dappled, bucolic environment that still manages to impart a sense of subliminal unease.

A grand transgression has just occurred: the counselors-in-training have indulged in an illicit, late-night skinny dipping pool party, to the outrage of conservative-minded camp owner Schuller Kindermann, who fires them all the next day, leaving his staff to scramble for new counselors before the first campers arrive. New counselors are hired, but no time is left to prepare them, inform them, and thus when the first campers arrive, a mere hour behind the counselors, they are stunned to see not kids spilling out of the bus, but adults, severely mentally disabled adults. The disorienting, funhouse sense of inversion has begun.

Among the camp staff are lifeguard Christopher Waterhouse, winsome and personable, Harriet Foster, camp nurse, the first African-American Schuller has ever hired, and twenty-three year old Wyatt Huddy. Born with Apert syndrome, which causes the skull bones fuse together too early, giving the face a distorted appearance, Wyatt has suffered the lifelong burden of looking much like the disabled state hospital campers, but without the intellectual disability. His presence produces confusion and discomfort in people he encounters and never more so while working as a counselor for the state hospital campers.

Dalton is one of those writers, like Ann Patchett and Elizabeth Strout, who has a fluid, assured style that’s compulsively readable, instantly absorbing. A graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Dalton was the winner of the Barnes & Noble 2004 Discover Award and currently teaches in the MFA Writing Program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He knows his craft, and every character who narrates arrives fully fleshed out with a rich backstory that has been distilled into a paragraph or two, usually with a dollop of wry philosophy tossed in. Countless examples exist throughout the story; I’d love nothing more than to quote a half-dozen, but I’ll restrain myself and limit it to a few, like seventy-eight year old Schuller Kindermann, lifelong bachelor, who craves order and prefers to be left alone to work on his hobby, crafting kirigami-style foldout paper creations.

“In his later years he’d come to understand a particular irony at work in the world: what you lack will always be magnified by the people and events that constitute your life. A boy with no appreciation for food will be born into a family of cooks and live above a bakery. A woman who feels no kindness for her children will see, everywhere she goes, mothers and fathers fawning over their babies. So it was with him. He’d gravitated to a career as a summer camp director. All his life he’d been exasperated by other people’s unwise longings.”

And unwise longings, it becomes clear, constitute a great deal of the challenges within the camp during the state hospital patients’ two weeks there. Desires abound, not simply among the young, attractive counselors, but among the severely disabled as well. Dalton, who’s had personal experience as a camp counselor under such circumstances, neither trivializes nor sentimentalizes the behavior of the disabled campers, but instead gives us a candid, clear view.

“And yet there was something outlandish about these state hospital campers. How had the women managed to grow fat in such striking ways? Not just bottom-heavy but with sudden shelflike ridges of fat that jutted out from their hips. They had either no breasts to speak of or hard-looking, conical breasts that looked too high-set and pointy to be real. With the men it was most often the opposite problem: a remarkable thinness, gangly arms, concave chests. A comic gauntness. You saw them from a medium distance and thought of old cartoons, the slouching, cross-eyed idiots with their awful haircuts and shortened trousers, their mouths full of sprawling teeth. But up close you noticed how each man or woman had gone inward and found a perch—unsteady maybe, or tilted, but still a perch—from which to peer out past the spasms and tics and whatever odd shapes their bodies had grown into.”

The story is narrated in turns, initially by Wyatt, Schuller and camp nurse Harriet, a canny, intelligent, single mother. It is she who observes the trouble brewing beneath the surface, problems that arise from the convergence of undertrained, overworked staff and the disabled campers that vastly outnumber them. Harriet’s suspicions over a staff member’s intentions come to a head one night and she enlists help from Wyatt to prevent a crisis, which results in an even greater crisis that carries long-term consequences for all involved.

Fifteen years later the story is inverted. The night’s drama, now history, gets turned on its side and explored from different perspectives. The past lives on in the heart of Marcy Bittman, former lifeguard, a character who allows herself to grow maudlin and sentimentalize. I found this was a brilliant way to add heart and sentiment to a section of the story without too much spilling over to the rest, which might have leached it of its taut hold on the reader. Former counselor Wayne Kesterton also returns, musing about a life that hadn’t turned out quite as he’d planned, the plight of many a dreamy twenty-year old. One afternoon on a city bus, Wayne encounters one of his former campers, the bad-tempered, vitriolic Mr. Stottlemeir, who loved nothing more than to spew obscenities at Wayne that summer (“Don’t touch me, you stinking puddle of piss! God damn you to hell eternal. God damn you, I say.”). This man, however, appears relatively normal. Through further investigation Wayne learns it was indeed his former charge, who’d finally been dosed with the right medication after years of trial and error, allowed to move from a locked-in facility to a retirement home. The unsettling nature of it hits both Wayne and the reader. What constitutes mental disability in the end? The wrong drugs? A low IQ? How low is too low? Should actions triggered by the baser, darker impulses that arise in all of us be judged by how intelligent we are?

Original and compulsively readable, The Inverted Forest challenges the reader to ponder the thorny issues of affliction, loyalty and desire. It’s one of those stories that will keep you thinking long after you’ve read the last page. A highly recommended read, a worthy follow-up to Dalton’s first novel, the equally recommended Heaven Lake.

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