Everything Solid Has a Shadow
By Michael Antman
272 pp. $15.95
Reviewed by Frank Wilson
'My name is Carlos Xavier Alessandro, though everyone calls me Charlie." So begins Michael Antman's intriguing second novel.
Charlie wastes no time in letting us in on the foundation of his discontent: When he was 8, Willa, his friend down the block in his Chicago neighborhood, asked him to help her babysit Elizabeth, her infant sister. He doesn't remember either of them taking Elizabeth out of her crib and putting her on Willa's bed and going out. But that apparently is why Elizabeth slipped between the bed and the wall and suffocated.
Willa's mother blames Charlie in no uncertain terms, and his mortified parents - Argentines of Italian descent - "decamp in a panic with me to Buenos Aires for a few years."
The family eventually moves back to Chicago, but when his parents decide to return to Argentina for good, Charlie chooses to stay behind. When we meet him, he's a junior partner in a marketing agency and a part-time singer-songwriter. In the latter capacity, he has regular gigs at an Italian restaurant-club called Berto's. Which brings us to his latest cause for discontent - a dream he just had about MariAngela, a waitress at Berto's, who also sings and plays guitar:
"It was as if she had entered my head through the back door of my brain and walked toward the front where my shuttered eyes slept, and thus was looking at my eyes from the inside rather than from the outside.
"All she said was, 'There's something wrong with my brain.' "
When he sees MariAngela at the club the next night, he tells her of the dream. She goes pale and looks as though she might faint. "I was diagnosed yesterday afternoon with something called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis," she tells him.
Dreams figure largely in Charlie's tale. His girlfriend, Alisa, is pals with a couple - Frank and Diane - who take dreams pretty seriously, especially Diane:
"I once had a dream where I was looking at tulips, and I noticed that they didn't cast any shadows on the sidewalk, and then some voice said to me, 'That's how you know this is a dream, because the flowers have no shadows.' That creeped me out for some reason when I woke up, but I guess I would have been totally freaked if the flowers did have shadows. Then I would have felt like, you know, if the real world was invading my dream world, then the dream world could invade my real world, too."
This interpenetration of dream and reality is what informs Antman's novel. Charlie isn't your standard unreliable narrator. He is, rather, a credulous narrator, and something of an innocent. From the story of him and Willa and her little sister on, he faithfully recounts what he has been told.
Each of the novel's three sections focuses on one of the women in Charlie's life, the first on Alisa, the second on Willa - who tracks Charlie down and reconnects with him when he lands a gig at a club in Hawaii - and the third on MariAngela.
There is a touch of magic realism at work here, but Antman has cannily kept it light. Charlie tells us one thing after another in his strangely compelling matter-of-fact way. At Diane's suggestion, he goes to see Dr. Nemerov, a most peculiar psychiatrist, who thinks that "in a couple of hundred years, the intuitions that we call 'vestigial' that we once all possessed when we were still half-animals and lacked the powers of speech . . . will have returned in full force to become part of our daily lives." Charlie also tracks down Willa's older sister, who should have been babysitting that day long ago, which helps him figure out something that had always puzzled him - "why Willa was standing in the middle of the sidewalk . . . when her three-and-a-half-month-old sister was back in the apartment in her slatted wooden crib, all alone."
In the end, though, it is not what happened when he was 8, but the dream of MariAngela that shapes his reality. The final pages may be dreamlike, but they are also deeply touching.
Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog "Books, Inq. - The Epilogue." Email him at PresterFrank@gmail.com.