Before memories of high school humor overwhelm any of my readers, let me assure them that, despite any associations evoked by this essay’s title, my subject, Toby Olson’s new novel, The Bitter Half, portrays no acts of sex. The sexual activities of which it hints take place off-stage in this dark comedy. The ins and outs of my title might be said to relate to everything except the act of sex.
The major character of this fiction, Chris Pollard (whose last name is defined through dictionary quotes in the frontispiece of the book) is a consultant in the field of prison escapes—a job which Pollard has invented at a time in the Great Depression when any job, let alone a newly created one, is as sparse as the vegetation around the Pearce, Arizona border prison where the fiction begins. Pollard has been asked out to evaluate the prison for flaws, particularly since its population of mostly Mexican men has escaped on a regular basis and, most importantly, because the prison now houses a young man, little more than a boy dubbed by authorities as “the kid,” who is a legend to inmates for his escapes from the most notorious of prisons. Pollard and the boy exchange only a few words, but within those moments an unspoken relationship between the two has been established.
We fell asleep…, and I think I remember him turning, my own
movement toward him until I had formed into a chair and he
was sitting in it.
It is quite apparent that the two not only now share a budding romance, but that they are bound together by their respective roles in life—the young man playing the role of an escape artist—a man who has spent nearly his entire young life moving from a position of being outside to being inside—with Pollard, an authority on that transformation, moving perpetually between the two. Both are figures damned, it appears, to eternal transition, a circular movement between in and out.
As Olson soon reveals, however, there is no true escape to be found. Discovering a lump in her breast, Chris is imprisoned again, this time in a hospital where the surgeons’ knives remove both her breasts and radiation leaves her head permanently hairless, transforming her physical appearance into a figure close to the one which she has previously imitated. With this transformation, once again, the boundaries of in and out—is she more like a man now in or out of costume?—are crossed.
As in Olson’s other fictions, moreover, The Bitter Half is chock full of coincidence—and with an entire populace on the move, it is almost believable—culminating in the arrival on her farm of a young group of itinerants who propose being paid for performing circus tricks. Like a troupe of medieval performers out of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, they preview their somewhat amateurish acts. Having previously postponed her annual gathering due to her illness, she takes on these acrobats, juggler and loquacious impresario as the centerpiece for a planned costume party. I won’t describe the numerous machinations of plot that weave together Bonnefoy, the kid’s sister, and dog Buck, with various other characters into this celebratory event. I have long ago stopped scoffing at such chance encounters. Like Dickens, Olson takes up the various strands of his tale and places them within Pollard’s confident hands. When a neighboring landowner, who had once hoped to marry Chris, shows up to the party dressed in drag and gracefully dances the night away with Bonnefoy, we hardly bat an eye! For the figures of this novel, we now perceive, all shift in and out—of prison, society, sexuality, love, and reality.
Los Angeles, August 22, 2006