Going To The Sun By James McManus: A Book Review By Julie Showalter

Introduction: Julie Showalter was the fiercely intelligent, sexy, and loving woman with whom I had a outrageously wonderful marriage that ended with her death in late 1999 from cancer diagnosed the week of our wedding nearly 20 years earlier. She was also a brilliant scholar, the mother of our two sons, and a prize-winning author. Many posts on this blog are about her and still others consist of her writings. Julie’s Story is the account of our unlikely romance, Information can be found at Julie Showalter FAQ. Julie’s Unpublished Writing comprises a group of pieces I’ve found on Julie’s computer or in her office that range from workshop exercises to story fragments to projects set aside to finish at a later day to work that appears to be fully as polished and effective as her published stories. This review was originally posted Jan 8, 2007 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of AllanShowalter.com.

Going To The Sun By James McManus: A Book Review By Julie Showalter

Penelope Culligan, the heroine of James McManus’s Going to the Sun says in the book’s opening line that “This isn’t really a horror story,” then tells of a camping trip when her new, first lover was mauled and half-eaten by a bear. David St. Germaine (her “Saint”) loses both legs, both eyes, one arm, and his penis. Wrapped in bandages with only his remaining hand free, David holds on to Penny and begs her to kill him. That she has the means is the result of the other tragedy of her life. Penny is diabetic and she has her “works” with her. She is able to inject enough insulin into David’s IV line to kill him without raising suspicions.

David’s death is background to the main part of the novel. Seven years later, Penny, who has never had another lover, who is obsessed with her inability to finish her dissertation on Beckett, who at twenty-nine knows she is approaching the life expectancy for victims of childhood diabetes, is undertaking a cross-country bike ride alone. Her goal is to ride from Chicago to Alaska, the site of David’s death. She tells us in short order that she is paranoid, that hallucinations are a symptom of late-stage diabetes, that she doesn’t want to kill herself — at least not just yet. In other words, she announces herself as an unreliable narrator. She seems lucid, but as her journey progresses, she tires and forgets her shots, then skips them out of anger. When her blood-testing machine shows she should be in a hospital, she destroys it. She and the reader struggle to sort out what is actually happening and what is in her mind. We trust her, but no farther than she can trust herself.

What Penny wants is to not have diabetes, to have never had it. What she will settle for is a death that is “elegant, painless if possible, and swift — maybe even heroic and beautiful.” Her recurring joke is that killing herself is the last thing she’ll ever do. Her plan, which she admits is not much of a plan, is to kill herself in the last moment before she loses control of her body to her disease. “But the real trick,” she says, “is to make it an act of pure joy.”

McManus’s creation of a believable female character is made remarkable by the fact that most of the novel takes place in Penny’s mind. Stream-of-consciousness narration can easily become claustrophobic, but Penny’s thoughts move through time, space, and her seemingly endless store of knowledge with such quirky twists that there’s never time to be bored. Even when she’s thinking about death she’s funny: “Mozart wrote Figaro, the string quintets, the ‘Trio Divertimento,’ the ‘Requim’ . . . and Mozart is dead, so how bad can being dead be? Frieda Kahlo and George Eliot and Miles Davis and Marguerite Duras and Dante Alighieri and Samuel Beckett and Sarah Vaughan and Hannah Arendt and Suzanne Langer and Abraham Lincoln and Maria Callas and Billie Holiday are dead. So — really now — how bad can being dead be?”

While I was reading Going to the Sun, and for days after finishing it, I’d find myself anxious for no apparent reason. Then I’d realize — I was worried about Penny. It’s a rare book that creates such involvement, a rare character who becomes so real she invades your day.

The ending is stunning.

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