The Other Shoe
Review by Julie Morse
July 27, 2012
Welcome to Red Plain, Montana, where life moves as slow as wet clothes drying under a dark cloud. Hot air cakes the smell of fried eggs and diesel. Citizens swear by the power of Jesus, and even strangers call you “honey”. A town where Matt Pavelich conjures up his latest work of backcountry crime, The Other Shoe.
Henry and Karen Brusset have spent their lives hibernating in an aluminum trailer perched in the Montana backcountry. Karen Brusset is a rare breed, a refurbished doll that embodies anything but the “feral nymph her mother wanted.” Her hands are disproportionately large, the color of “bronze to khaki depending on the current warmth of her blood.” From an early age, Karen’s disinterest in socializing rendered her a superfluous member of the family without a diagnosis for her aberrant behavior.
A mutual outcast, Henry is the first friend Karen makes in her teenage years while attending a social gathering at church. Nearly twice Karen’s age, the two become life companions on their “tiny, barren continent of marriage.”
This companionship is severed when Calvin Teague, a young, guileless, aspiring pharmacist whose decision to venture from Iowa to Montana – combined with a naïve spirit for adventure and inept hiking skills – render him lost and wandering on the highway. Intrigued by the prospects of more youthful companionship, Karen decides to test her social graces by extending an invitation for Calvin to stay the night, and in a twisted effort to be polite, asks Calvin to help her bathe.
The interlocking of these characters in what can only be described as an inbred backwoods murder underpin a more acute understanding of provincial life in Red Plain. Half-way through the book, Pavelich devotes a chapter to the struggle of a farmer to uproot his cow from the mud, in an austere Cowen-Faulknerian portrayal of the Wild West. Hoot Meyers, the county attorney, addresses the population as the “lunatic fringe of the United States.”
In a town defined by estates, farms and manual labor, Henry is charged guilty and useless. After quitting his local construction job and claiming disability for arthritis, Henry’s futility fosters him a steady prescription drug addiction. Once arrested and jailed for Calvin’s death, he becomes increasingly quiet and obtuse. He flounders to a state of listlessness, succumbing to his jail cell as would a despondent fish pacing in its bowl.
The framing of Calvin’s murder is stretched across the first third of the novel, followed by a close-up rendering of a painfully slow trial. Members of the court receive torpid and churning introductions, while Pavelich invites us to poke fun at Karen’s dopey cartoon personality. When asked her position on Henry’s case she responds, “my position, I’ve never had one of those before.”
Apparently, Henry always hoped for Karen’s departure, believing “she could never learn so long as she was with him.” His desires are upheld after being locked up when, despite all efforts, he ignores any requests by Karen to see him: “[M]ore than anything else, he wished to be absent, and it was pleasant to think of himself wild-eyed and aloof in some woods – young again, whole again for being hunted.”
Karen continues to fumble after her separation from Henry, unaware of how to create a future on her own. The novel evolves into a study on her opaque journey of self-discovery. We observe her longing for Henry, her letter writing and weak farming skills. Most of the time we stare back into her blank, languid eyes, hoping she will wake up to the fact that Henry wants nothing more than for her to move on.
The Other Shoe is not unlike a “Law and Order” spin-off set in the wild. So much of the novel is an ostensible diagnosis and examination of characters. A meticulous background check, the book prohibits the reader from cultivating any sense of belonging and intimacy with the story. When love is defined by precaution, who can manage to stay innocuous forever?
Julie Morse is a contributing writer and artist based in San Francisco. Visit her online at juliemorse.tumblr.com