The man sits hidden among pines on a bluff overlooking the grid of farms and county roads lying north. It is hot. Several times now the man has moved his three-legged camp stool to maintain full shade. That is how long he has been waiting and watching and drinking. He watches through a scope, a 3 x 9 x 40 Bushnell, the one he has used in his lifetime for large, wary prey – deer, for example, and sometimes antelope.
So begins TO BE SUNG UNDERWATER, a novel by Tom McNeal (Little Brown). But the man is not waiting for game but for a woman, the woman he loved twenty-five years earlier as a seventeen year-old transplant from Vermont. This is the love story between Willy Blunt, a young carpenter with pale blue eyes, and Judith Whitman, a driven young woman who comes to live with her father in Nebraska. In one summer, they fall in love and to Judith, marrying Willy seems the natural next and best step in her life. But when college takes her to California, Judith pursues her dream of a film editing career and forgets Willy. She marries a successful banker, has a daughter, and lives a dream life. But her marriage has secrets, some of them kept from her, and Judith becomes dissatisfied and restless with her life. She remembers the sweeter and slower times she had with Willy in the wide-open Nebraska plains. This story is about what happens when a woman trying to remember love reaches back into her past to find the man who never forgot her.
To Be Sung Underwater is both lush and transparent. The prose sings without drawing attention to itself. McNeal paints the beauty and harshness of Nebraska, as well as the rush and sparkle of Los Angeles, with enviable ease. The story alternates from past to present, and he weaves the two time periods seamlessly. For a man, McNeal writes girl good, especially when he writes Judith as a teenager. Here, the writing shines with wit and irony and the right touch of rebellion of every young person. This, when Judith first meets Willy, who has come to roof a neighbor’s house:
Judith watched him follow her in and didn’t stop watching until the door closed behind them. When she turned back, the station wagon was still there and the bearded roofer was looking her way. The red brim of his Purina seed cap was stained dark with sweat, and his amused expression seemed to suggest he knew a little bit more about this country and about this farm and possibly even about her than she ever would. It was quite an irritant. With all the hostility she could muster, she said, “What’re you looking at?”
The roofer made dropping his gaze seem like an act of deference. “Well, I was looking at you,” he said, then raised his eyes again and let them settle even more fully on Judith. “And I’ll bet I’m not the first.” He was smiling again.
Judith gave him a stony stare and said,” Are you half-witted or just easily amused?”
She expected this to send the roofer into retreat, but it didn’t. His smile in fact loosened slightly. He raked his fingers through his beard and said, “Just exactly how old are you, anyway?”
“Seventeen,” she lied.
He nodded, stared off for a moment, then turned his face to her again. “Well, then, I’d call you dangerous.”
McNeal shows great affection for his characters. They come across as honest, flawed, and compassionate. Judith is the girl of the seventies, a time when women began openly to flex their brains and muscles. She doesn’t quite trust relationships, even with Willy, due in large part to her own parents’ failing marriage. Willy uses big language and once had big dreams, but finds his talent and his lot in carpentry, in building things. This love estranges him from his father, who wishes nothing more than for him to take over the family farm.
Summer in Nebraska is full of lazy days drinking beer at secret swimming holes, making out in Willy’s truck, Thursday afternoon trysts in Judith’s bedroom while her father is away. Willy drinks beer in almost every scene, and I wondered why Judith, astute in most other ways, never questions his constant drinking. Her neglect of this detail plays a significant role in their relationship and in their ends. Without giving away too much, the finale has a Hollywood feel, perhaps too closely scripted and contrived relative to the rest of the novel. You sense the oncoming tragedy, the tension palpable.
McNeal writes a gorgeous, devastating tale, one which will make you rethink what is important in your life. It is a story of living a reflective life, even if that soul-searching comes too late for redemption. It is a story of choices made, and how to gain some happiness by returning to those wrongly made choices. Reading To Be Sung Underwater often left me in a state of peace, of serenity, an almost spiritual place. If this is what Rufus Sage, Nebraska feels like, then take me there. Transport me, the way this book does, to a place of greater grace.
About the Author: Tom McNeal's first novel, Goodnight, Nebraska, won the James A Michener Memorial Prize and California Book Award. His short fiction has appeared in the The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Pushcart Prize XXI. He lives near San Diego with his wife and sons. To learn more about Tom and his writing wife Laura, check out their website McNeal Books.