The Testing of Luther Albright

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9780007196722: The Testing of Luther Albright

A mercilessly gripping and remarkable debut novel about a man determined not to repeat his father's mistakes.

Luther Albright is a builder of dams, a man whose greatest pride – besides his family – is the house he built himself and the knowledge that he's constructed something that will shelter them from harm.

However, when a minor earthquake shakes his California home it soon reveals fault lines within his family. His son's behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre and threatening, his devoted wife more distant. Meanwhile, the dam Luther built comes under investigation for structural flaws exposed by the earthquake. Nightmarish implications begin to emerge from the most innocent of places as the psychological suspense heightens, to create this harrowing portrait of a decent but flawed man who cannot see the truth.

In the spirit of Rosellen Brown and Alice McDermott, this is a harrowing portrait of an ordinary man who finds himself being tested and strives not to be found wanting.

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Review:

‘Mackenzie Bezos has produced a rarity: a sophisticated novel that breaks and swells the heart … Its pull is irresistible.’ Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature

‘An impressive, quietly powerful debut … Bezos captures the extraordinary in the ordinary, revealing a subtle imagination and a startling talent for naturalism.’ Publishers Weekly

‘A nuanced, emotionally charged first novel.’ Booklist

From the Author:

Why did you choose to write your novel from a manís point of view, and a middle-aged man at that? Why not something closer to your own experience? Even Liz or Elliotís voices would probably have been less alien to you.
ĎItís funny. I started with the same assumption. I planned on writing the book from multiple viewpoints Ė chapters alternating in the voices of four different characters Ė and I started with a teenage daughter. I moved onto the son and the wife next, and tackled Luther last, because I figured his voice would be the most difficult for me. As it turned out, his was instantly the easiest and most interesting for me to work on, and the teenage daughter turned out to be so incredibly dull and hard to write I cut her character altogether. I used to puzzle over this, but now I think I understand it. I attribute it to a couple factors. I think his differences actually gave me a running start at characterization, in the same way that people often find it easier to describe people they just met at a cocktail party than to describe their own spouses. And I also think that his particular problems made him the most natural mouthpiece for a story of this kind of loss and regret.
But that isnít to say that it was easy for me once I figured out his voice was the way to go. The process was riddled with technical problems and hobbling episodes of self-doubt that stemmed from Lutherís repression. I kept asking myself why a guy like him would tell his own story. If he knew how revealing, how full of error and cause for regret that year of his life would be, why would he ever narrate it? The person he was the year it all happened would certainly never share these stories Ė he wouldnít even want to reflect on them in the privacy of his own lonely mind. And even if I just took it on faith that something towards the end of the story would give him the motivation to lay his story bare, I couldnít imagine the tone with which heíd look back on these events because I didnít know how the story ended. Would he feel critical of himself? Regretful? Angry? Self-justifying? So I wrote most of the book in the present tense as a way of dodging the question of narrative tone. About three quarters of the way through my first draft, I actually stopped and spent four months trying to rewrite the first half in the third person, chucking the idea of the confessional novel altogether. There was just a huge amount of agonising trial and error involved.
What I learned from this process is that for me itís really paralysing and ultimately useless to try to economise my narrative effort during a first draft. The only way for me to learn that a certain approach wouldnít work was to try it. Choosing quickly and writing something that I could then evaluate as either bad or good was always the quickest way to narrative success. For the rest of that year, I tried to force a degree of discipline and humour into the dreary business of making these arbitrary first draft choices by leaving them up to my labrador. I would lay two dog biscuits on the floor and tell myself that if she ate the biscuit on the left first, Iíd try writing a scene where Luther and his father are trapped in the crawl space of a house in Short Hills, New Jersey, and if she ate the biscuit on the right, Iíd try writing a scene where Luther and his mother make devilled eggs by candlelight in their kitchen in Trenton. This worked pretty well until one dispiriting week when she settled in to always choosing the left biscuit. But by then, I didnít really need the trick anymore. I just chose at random, and then followed the path of my better scenes to the right story and the right ending. When I finally knew where Luther ended up emotionally and how the events had changed him, I understood why he felt moved to reflect on that year and tell his story, and the question of narrative tone became fairly easy. Then I moved on to the treat of revision. Whenever I meet someone at a reading or a dinner party who is slogging through the first draft of their first novel, Iím quick to offer the prediction that it will become a lot more fun. The final draft work was often difficult, and it required much longer days, but they were jam-packed with fun problems and huge rewards. It was really a pleasure. When the whole story is there, every hour of effort is just a much longer lever.í

What was the inspiration for this book?
ĎIíve always had a deep, nerdy preoccupation with the cumulative effect of tiny misunderstandings in intimate relationships. At dinner parties, in books and movies, in overheard conversations, itís always the sideline drama of small, well-intentioned acts of evasion or omission that draws my attention and quickens my pulse. Just to give you an idea of the scope of my fixation, for me, one of the most memorable scenes in Star Wars is the one where Lukeís uncle and aunt argue over their expectations for him after he leaves the kitchen.
Lutherís story evolved from this preoccupation, albeit unconsciously. I didnít set out to write a book about emotional secrecy anymore than I enter movie theaters intending to be transfixed and distracted by purely expository background tensions. But when I sat down to start a novel, every time I created a character that was secretive in this way, I found myself more interested, and the writing got better. Then the characters who loved them tried to draw some degree of emotional honesty from them in increasingly aggressive ways. The tension mounted. At first it surprised me, but now it seems natural. After a straightforward plea, is there any other healthy reaction to distance in an intimate relationship? The only alternative is to accept estrangement, which in some way is what Liz ultimately seems to do. Even the smallest bits of evasion or omission in an intimate relationship build a little bit of distance, erode trust. And in the end, people make decisions based on their own perceptions, which are hard to predict and impossible to control. To me, itís a fascinating problem. Thereís so much tragic potential in it.í

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Bezos, Mackenzie
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