No empathy for traumatized men

Review of “The Brightwood Stillness” by Mark Pomeroy.

 

The Brightwood Stillness
Mark Pomeroy
279 pages, softcover:
$18.95.
Oregon State University Press, 2014.

 

The Brightwood Stillness, Mark Pomeroy’s- debut novel, begins with a “Special Report” from the Portland, Oregon, police department: A high school science teacher, Hieu Nguyen, has been accused of sexual misconduct by a female student. During this crisis, Hieu could use the support of his friend and fellow teacher, Nate Davis. But Nate is dealing with his own troubles after being stabbed by a student in the school’s parking lot.

The two men react to trauma in opposite ways. Hieu hides in his house, pummeling his family with anger. Nate pushes his girlfriend, Hieu’s sister, away and flies across the Pacific Ocean to search for his Uncle Sammy, his surrogate father, who deserted the family nearly 30 years ago — 10 years after Nate’s own father vanished.

The novel is set in the mid-1990s, when cellphones and the Internet are still uncommon. Events move forward at the pace set by phone booths and letters — a rhythm that allows Hieu and Nate time to navigate the emotional minefields of their complicated pasts.

The Davis family cabin, which sits in a patch of western Oregon forest called Brightwood, plays a strong supporting role in the story. Far away in Jakarta, Nate thinks of it, longs to “head down to the confluence of Boulder Creek and the Salmon River, smell the water and last year’s leaves along the shore … to hike up Wildcat Mountain, take in the clear-cut, climb onto one of the big stumps and check out the view.” The place is also the setting for a life-changing moment for Hieu and yields some clues about Sammy’s conflicted mind and current whereabouts.

“How glorious it is sometimes,” Pomeroy writes, for a man “to be angry and alone.” The Brightwood Stillness shows the challenges faced by teachers in our me-first, litigious society, especially when racism becomes a factor. It tries to unravel the complicated tangle of commitment and trust integral to human relationships, as well as the consequences of emotional isolation. But despite all the drama in The Brightwood Stillness, its characters aren’t much changed, and the story ultimately glides to a predictable end.