It’s probably only fair to preface my review of Tim Sandlin’s newest novel by admitting that I have read almost all of his brilliantly weird books. Sandlin’s novels have retained their place in my personal library since I was a high school student, searching for any sign that life wasn’t quite as strange as I was beginning to suspect it was. Sandlin’s novels were filled with characters and situations far more abnormal than I could even imagine experiencing. It was, and still is, a great comfort. A biased reviewer, you say? Well, maybe.
Lydia is the fourth installment in what was originally intended to be a trilogy of novels centered on the exploits of the slightly hapless (but undeniably lovable) Sam Callahan. The GroVont Books begin with his life as a teenage boy, forging through puberty with only the world’s most what-were-you-thinking inappropriate mother for guidance (enter, Lydia). Thrown into the smaller-than-small town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Sam sits at the center of a constant whirlwind of women whom we come to appreciate for all their beautiful idiosyncrasies over the course of each of the original novels. At the top of the heap is his first love, Maurey, whom he unwittingly impregnates at the ripe age of 14 (enter daughter, Shannon). And by the time we reach Lydia, our favourite characters are all grown up (well, age-wise at least).
Sam and his wife are (quite appropriately) running a home for unwed mothers, Maurey manages a successful ranch, Shannon is giving that whole early mid-life crisis thing the old college try, and Lydia has just been released from prison for just your general run of the mill bit of misconduct (you know, trying to poison Ronald Regan’s dog). Hard as nails feminist that she is, Lydia emerges from prison actually having lost some of her edge. Prison, it seems, may just be the only thing hard enough to expose her soft side. She returns to Jackson Hole the worse for wear (in her own mind, at least) and reluctantly ready to chip away at an almost ungodly amount of community service. Well, reluctantly may be an understatement. Deeply resenting the aging process that she feels has failed her, Lydia is sentenced, fittingly enough, to record the life story of Jackson Hole’s soon-to-be Centenarian, Oly Pederson. So there we are, all caught up.
Sandlin’s stories, so often based in the sweeping landscapes of Wyoming, always makes me want to do one thing – hop into a truck and drive out west. Through Oly’s simple and poignant memoirs, Lydia takes on a whole new scale. His life takes us from the disaster of the Great Quake in 1906 San Francisco into the Europe of World War I and beyond. We even get a taste of booze and art-filled Paris in the early 1920s, complete with a fistfight between our hero and Piscasso himself. At first, giving pages away to a new (and at the same time very old) character felt like losing time with the characters I had come to love after so long. The more I read, though, the more I got addicted to Oly’s storytelling. His oral history weaved some of the richest parts of the novel. Suffice it to say I will never look at a nursing home resident, sitting peacefully in their chair, in the same way again.
What I love most about Sandlin’s novels is the accessibility of his characters. As unique as they are identifiable, his characters are real and gross and sweet and we get the chance to see them in all their shining craziness. As a reader you almost get the sense that Sam’s flaws and thoughts are really straight from the truest parts of Sandlin himself, which in some cases could be a flaw in the narrative but in this case feels like a unique opportunity to gain insight into charming author himself. And Sandlin, as an author and a person, is accessible. Just look him up online. You’ll easily stumble upon a plethora of Sandlin material; a short journal he wrote during his 1997 book tour, a website for the Jackson Hole Writer’s Conference that he helped to found almost 20 years ago. Hell, he even has his own WordPress blog. Happily, I’m no stranger to being able to access the man behind the curtain. Three years ago I began to harbor my own dreams of flying off to Jackson Hole for the writer’s conference held there each June. When I called to get more information, I was surprised to receive a return call from a very chilled-out guy calling himself Tim. I loved that even as a fairly successful author he wasn’t above doing the foot work for a project he was passionate about, inspiring possible authors to write, write, write. During our brief conversation, I swear I held it together (for the most part) and came away from the conversation sounding relatively calm, aside from one or two mumblings of “I really am a big fan of your work.” (Resisting the urge to tell him I’d be more than glad to have his literary babies despite the age difference, of course.) Either way, he was kind and encouraging and talking to him while in my backyard dressed in pajamas was a surreal and wonderful moment. Something I hold dear, along with his novels and their many lovable and hapless characters. Although I must admit Lydia is not my favourite book in the expanded GroVont series, I definitely needed a new Sandlin book in my life. Sandlin’s self-proclaimed “four-book trilogy” finally feels finished with this surprising last addition. Not overplayed, just a chapter ready to close.
When it comes to Sandlin’s newest novel, the verdict is simple. Read it. Read them all. Maybe you will rediscover as I did that we are all both hopelessly flawed and impossibly optimistic.