In The Middle of It All with Fred G. Leebron
So far, Fred G. Leebron has published three novels, all well worth reading; Out West in 1997, Six Figures in 2001 and In the Middle of It All in 2002. Six Figures was made into a movie in 2005.
Contemporary novels, it seems to me, fall basically into two large categories; one type giving great attention to physical description and depiction, the other focussing essentially on the mind and internal life of the characters. Leebron's exceptional writing style and point of view encompasses both. Critics have compared his work to Richard Yates, and the comparison is apt. Having recently completed reading every word available by Richard Yates in print, I was initially so greatly attracted by these books because it feels that Leebron is the clear inheritor of Yates' vision. But there are enough touches of Flannery O'Connor, Truman Capote and Milan Kundera and his own very unique and original style to make Fred G. Leebron already a standout in today's fiction. Along with Heather O'Neill, Paul Auster and Jonathan Lethem, he has quickly joined my group of favorites.
Out West tracks a young pair of murderers closely through virtually every physical action, feeling and thought they have over several days. The book is astonishing in its cinematic qualities, but also in its philosophical depth and complexity. The writer's excitement in writing every single sentence is palpable; this has become my measure in assessing quality in writing. If the writing feels dutiful and labored, I start to wonder why the writer bothered. In the three books by Leebron I've read in the past week, I notice a gradual transition towards a close examination of family life. Leebron in his two more recent books takes the risk to examine the quotidian with the same great focus on detail as his first book, which depicts a greatly unusual and grotesque situation, the same risk that Yates takes, of course. And with Leebron I see an empathy with the issues that plague nearly every marriage and relationship that makes Yates so unusual, particularly for a male writer. Six Figures follows a suburban couple in their intense efforts to remain ethical and become adequately financially successful at the same time. This is without doubt among the most unexplored and undocumented crises of our time. The pathos, dark comedy and masked desperation implicit in American suburban living is exactly what made the film American Beauty such a classic. There are lots of numbers out there assessing this, but few portrayals on the level of Leebron's. Like Out West, in Six Figures a mysterious violent act ( in Six Figures, the aggression is acted out against the wife and mother character) tests every internal and social aspect of all the novel's characters, major and minor. The family's efforts to deal with all this creates a Sisyphus myth for our own time. In each of his novels, Leebron's concerns with the dialectic between what someone can show, and what a person can know and care about in the life of another is explored in a way that creates a kind of suspense of the social kind that is well beneath the surface and mostly concealed and camouflaged in everyday life. It is in this sense that Leebron's take on suspense in fiction is so cathartic yet so unique psychologically and philosophically.
I will conclude with a quote from Leebron's most recent novel In The Middle of All This, which mostly concerns itself with the effects on a brother of a sister who is slowly dying of cancer. The sibling aspect of couples is a theme throughly and very interestingly explored in all of Leebron's books. What I found fascinating about the following quote is the fact that this internal moment is the actual, though not apparent, climax of the book, a fact that may have thrown off some of the book's critics. The passage, one of Leebron's best yet, I think captures Leebron's acute sensitivity and the breadth of his perceptions about contemporary living and, importantly, dying:
"Everybody died. But what went on between now and then- all the entanglements and annoyances and deprivations and enjoyments and inspirations and despair and redemption- you could never really know unless it was you or the person came right out and told you, and even in the telling there'd have to be a shift between what it was and what language made it sound like it was. Could nothing be shared? He wished he were back in his own bed with his screaming thoughts and fears and dreams. He wished he were younger, he wished he were older. He wished that his wife could tell him everything she ever thought, and he wished that he'd be interested by all of it. He wished he didn't ache for a hundred different women. He wished that his kids wold stop growing up, and he wished that they were already grown up and done and safe and out of the house. He wished that his father were dead and he wished that his father were once again young enough that he could actually talk with him. Had he every really talked with his father? And what the hell did that mean?- really talk? Did anyone really talk? Did anyone really listen?"