The Double Bind – Review

Chris Bohjalian. The Double Bind. New York: Random, 2007. Print.

This is a scary book. The prologue tells us of the brutal attempted rape of a nineteen year old college student in the Green Mountains of Vermont. The author may have named this girl Laurel to echo the Greek myth of Daphne who barely escaped being raped by a god by being turned into a laurel bush.

After the opening, though, it sounds like the book may be fun, or at least refreshing. Laurel is now twenty-six, and it appears this episode is mostly behind her. She is a caring worker at a homeless shelter in Vermont. She appears to be getting her life together, as they say.

An octogenarian who had passed through the shelter, Bobbie Crocker, has recently died, his only possessions of any value being a curious collection of photographs. Most are from the 1950s and 1960s and include some famous people from that era: Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson, Coretta King, Bob Dylan, Dick Van Dyke, Julie Andrews.

The author in a preface tells us that that part of the story is loosely based on an actual experience at a Vermont homeless shelter.  A few pictures by this man are scattered through the book.

What strikes Laurel about Bobbie’s legacy are two sets of photographs: a group from the 1920s and 1930s from the area of Long Island, New York, where she grew up in the eighties and nineties; and some recent photos of the road near where she was assaulted.

What makes this book seemingly fun is that the story brings in locations and references to people in The Great Gatsby. Laurel grew up in West Egg. The country club her parents belonged to is the grounds of what was once the Gatsby estate. At one point she meets the elderly Pamela Buchanan, the daughter of Tom and Daisy Buchanan who now lives in the Hamptons. Hovering in the background is the ghost of Jay Gatsby, or James Gatz as many of the Long Islanders insist on calling him.

There is a literary lark going on. But we may recall that even though Jay Gatsby may have been “worth the whole damn bunch put together,” his story does not have a happy ending. So as the reader continues with The Double Bind, he or she begins to see things unravel. While Laurel may be trying to solve a hometown mystery, she may also be getting a lot deeper into things than she realizes.

The novel appears authentic. The Burlington colleges, Waterbury, the more rural places ring true. The small town of Barrett is apparently a fabrication, but Underhill State Park is real, and it borders on Mt. Mansfield, the tallest peak in the state.

Much of the story involves street people or the homeless including their struggles with mental illness and addictions. From experiences I have had with such people, this also rings true.

The only quibble I have is that in this novel Daisy Buchanan is described as a heavy drinker—yet The Great Gatsby tells us that Daisy does not drink. Her “episode” on her wedding day stands out for that reason. Then again, those descriptions of her may have been given in this novel by people who did not like the Buchanans. How does one separate gossip from truth? Many modern writers enjoy the perspective of the unreliable narrator.

Bohjalian is a very good story teller. The Double Bind spins on to an inevitable end as the pace picks up. It is as if the bicycle is running down the mountain and, try as you might, its brakes are not working.  This looked like fun at first, but as the vehicle continues to accelerate, it gets scary …

One of the quotations on the book’s blurb says that the ending of the novel is a surprise. It is not—by the time you get there—though it may feel like a crash landing.  Still, do not spoil it for yourself by reading the last chapter first. There are numerous stories and subplots going on in the tale, many are subtle, but they all contribute to the climax.

One sad thing which, alas, seems more and more typical of our culture is the casual approach to sex that it seems all the characters have. Laurel’s roommate, Talia, wonders if perhaps there is a disconnect between being a Baptist youth pastor and her casual view of premarital relations.  In spite of what happened to her seven years before, Laurel also seems to seek solace in sexual relations. One point, though, does come through: What is the difference between extramarital sex and rape?  The clients of the homeless shelter all have backgrounds that include either sexual abuse or fatherlessness or both. What a difference there would be if people exercised more self-control…

Laurel is athletic. Until her assault, she rode mountain bikes in real mountains. Afterwards she goes back to swimming, a sport she excelled in while in high school. Still, we discover that the Great Gatsby character most like her is not the slim and athletic Jordan Baker. (“Aunt Jordie” her niece calls her.)  The key episode in Fitzgerald’s story is the death of Myrtle Wilson. I hope I have not given away too much of the story by mentioning that, but there are many subtle delights in The Double Bind if you can stand the horror.

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