As I read more of the books from my 50 Book Challenge, I find I am responding to them personally instead of intellectually. By which I mean, my reading feels like listening, like someone is telling me their story and I am there not to judge but just to listen.
I certainly felt that way as I read Arnold’s story in Road to the Stilt House by David Adams Richards. This is the first of seven of his novels I will be reading as part of my 50 Book Challenge (and Richards’ fourth novel overall) and, as I’ve read his books, I’ve developed the suspicion that I am one of the people he is chastising for their good intentions. I’ve read and not really understood why his characters make the decisions, poor decisions in my mind, they do. I’ve enjoyed the stories he tells, the craft of his writing, but the characters have been largely unlikeable. I have, as Richards has accused his critics, mistaken nice for good.
But, with Road to the Stilt House, I felt like I was starting to understand Richards’ point.
Stilt House tells the story of Arnold and his family. They are extremely poor. They fight. Randy, his younger brother, has just returned from being placed in foster care. His mother is ill. Her boyfriend and his mother poke and prod for sport. They are unlikeable and difficult and yet to pass judgement on them would only feed the source of their struggle.
The novel is one of Richards darkest but I found it made his point more clearly, largely due to the shifting narrative viewpoints from first and third person: being able to see inside Arnold’s head opens up a lot of understanding not because things are spelled out for the reader but because his feelings behind his actions are more evident.
Also, the personal toll of Arnold’s life – events outside of his control, illness, and universal sorrows – help retain empathy for him when he spits harsh words and lashes out at those around him. And they are not excuses for his behaviour; they are the roots of understanding him. His depression, ignored by those meant to help his family and used as a weapon by those within his family, holds him in place.
One scene in particular stands out. Throughout the book, Arnold deals with bad teeth. They are rotting and falling out. They have cut his mouth and his gums bleed. Finally, he works up the courage to ask the social worker assigned to his family to help him get his teeth fixed. She is embarrassed and asked why he didn’t go to the dentist years ago. I felt such rage toward her for asking that question. To punish him instead of helping. She waves it off by saying they cut back on teeth and he makes light of the problem but he is deeply hurt by the exchange:
And now Seaweed too. Even Seaweed was asking her favours!
He went upstairs. He sat down on his bed and put his head in his hands. His chest shook and shuddered.
He refers to himself in the third person by his nickname, which only highlights his perception of worthlessness, as a thing instead of a person, and hates himself for asking her to do her job. This woman is meant to help him and instead she increases his shame, his sense of powerlessness, his sense of being stuck. That kind of systemic failing is what I believe Richards’ is trying to impart. The problem isn’t Arnold, it is those who would judge him for something over which he has no control, including the reader.
While Arnold does eventually get new teeth, this, of course, does not repair all the damage in his life. It is a cosmetic fix that does nothing alter the circumstances that led him to need them in the first place.
By the end of the novel, Arnold loses control over his life and, in fact, loses his life. His loss of control is reflected in the novel’s structure as his cousin finishes telling Arnold’s story for the last 28 pages.
I can only hope that Richards, as he frequently does in his novels, picks up Arnold’s tale and fills in the how and why of the end of his life. To be left as he was at the end of Road to the Stilt House is an unfair conclusion to his life. But perhaps that is also point. That the structures in place that contributed to his end are the same that will brush his life and death aside as inevitable. That we shouldn’t care or look too closely at Arnold’s death.
After all, it was just Seaweed.