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Here is How it Happens, by Spencer Dew
When Spencer Dew writes a novel set in the Midwest, he does not depict the exceedingly earnest, impossibly polite Midwest of a Garrison Keillor radio show. Instead, he relates a more plausible tale of Midwestern tragedy as told by a group of turpentine-huffing students at a small Ohio college.
Here is How it Happens begins with the promise implied in the title. Rather than constructing a narrative where everything is hidden until the author is ready to reveal it, Dew prefers a more forthright approach, one that suggests the book’s ending from the very first page. We know things will not end well, that the relationships of the characters will not reach fruition, that every desire will be named and promptly frustrated. Dew possesses the artistry and confidence to tell the reader upfront: you know how this will end, but here is how it happens.
Our protagonist, Martin Wheeler, spends much of his time ignoring phone messages from his Cleveland-based girlfriend and passing the hours with his pal Courtney, whose love life revolves around her oft-absent partner Sloan. Both of their romantic relationships have calcified into habit: neither loves their partner, but neither seems capable of separating.
As the narrative proceeds, it’s clear that Martin and Courtney are drawn to one another, but we know, almost from the moment they are introduced, that they will never end up together. Mismatched love is as old as literature itself, and in an American context, it takes on an added degree of poignancy, because America—the home of free will, individualism and seemingly infinite choices—allows Dew’s characters to make every choice but the right one.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Here is How it Happens is Dew’s treatment of nostalgia, a quality we often associate with those whose best years are behind them. In Here is How it Happens, Dew suggests that nostalgia infects the young as well. Whether it’s Martin’s friend Eddie, who spends his time building a precise and detailed diorama of the Kent State shootings, or Courtney’s friend Bear, who buys a seal tranquilizer gun just so he can shoot himself with it, the characters are obsessed with experience and the processing of memories. However, the reader gets the sense that each new experience is the basis of a future nostalgia, that today’s mundanity is tomorrow’s longing, and that for Martin and his friends, the future exists only as a series of returns, so that what lies ahead simply loops back to an idyllic and reimagined past that never actually existed.
The characters of Here is How it Happens desire experience, but are instantly bored by what they create. They do not live in the present: their happiness is dependent on making memories that can then be idealized – memories that are, by definition, unattainable. This brings to mind what the poet William Blake called "gratified desire,” and the frustration of that desire serves as the very life that Martin and his friends build for themselves – in other words, something attained is no longer an object of desire. And nostalgia, at once sweet and bitter, cannot exist if the world it imagines is ever realized.
As an Ohio boy myself, I deliberately choose to call this novel a work of tragedy, because ungratified desire is part of the quiet desperation that pervades small towns throughout the Midwest. Works of tragedy are also rich in humor and Dew’s book is no exception. With a keen ear for dialogue, yet with all the grit and unflinching clarity of a documentary, Dew’s novel is that rarest of things: fiction that so closely resembles its subject that it actually warrants the disclaimer printed on the flyleaves of so many lesser books: This is a work of fiction. All resemblances to any person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Dew demonstrates that you cannot know the Midwest without knowing its nostalgia, which is, in a curious sense, its idea of heaven.