“I’m the only person in my town other hustlers would come to beat, except that it doesn’t happen anymore. There are so few of us left.”
“And do they, would they beat you?”
“No,” Cassie said. “No, they wouldn’t.”
So explains Cassie Claiborne, the unforgettable force of Haven Kimmel’s latest novel, Something Rising (Light and Swift) (Free Press, 2004).
Cassie — short for Cassiopeia, not Cassandra — is the daughter of a pool-shark father and a mother lost dreaming of the past. When her dad bails on the family, young Cassie takes up her father’s game as a means of supporting her depressed mother and mentally ill sister.
Sounds like another hard-luck story — but there’s no self-pity in sight. There’s simply no room for it in Kimmel’s rich descriptions and colorful plot twists.
But there’s humor, yes. And as for self-discovery and resilience — they’re everywhere.
Cassie herself is an edgy, sure-footed bad-ass of a young woman, first coming of age in — and then dominating — smoke-filled bars, beating drunken men many times her age at the pool table. She rides the sharp edge between being unforgiving and deeply compassionate, between being jaded and truly innocent.
But she’s never the victim.
Early on, we encounter Cassie — age 12 — dressed in yesterday’s clothes, not bothering with her teeth, or her hair (“There was little left of it anyway, after the episode with the ticks and Poppy’s clippers”), and waiting for her dapper, womanizing father to make his way back to the family’s home.
It’s a glimpse of a child on her way to becoming a mostly unsentimental and completely unstoppable woman.
Cassie loves her father, despite his shortcomings. But instead of letting that affection become her Achilles’ heel, she — like the novel’s title implies — rises with offhand naturalness above hardship:
“She had always hated school, hated it until recently, when suddenly the girl who had been expelled six times for fighting, had flunked every subject in one semester last year (including badminton), began collecting report cards that were different from past years. In this, the spring of her tenth-grade year, she had done poorly in everything but math. Her teacher, astonished, had sent a letter to [her mother] that said one thing: She’s a natural.“
Cassie also proves a natural at the pool table. When, at age 16, she sees her father again, she plays him for his prized cue. And wins.
Sounds like a great ending — but it’s actually only the start.
The story is set mainly in Indiana (with a sultry dip into New Orleans), and Cassie seems anchored to the heartland, a place that holds her mother, Laura, prisoner. Laura’s life has stagnated as she waits for her negligent husband to return. (Tellingly, the author herself is an Indiana native who became a single mother at 19.)
Conversely, Cassie roams free, raising herself. Yet even in her pursuit of independence, she maintains a deep connection to such odd characters as Uncle Buck, who taught her to play pool; Emmy, the would-be-rebellious friend who can’t quite escape her parents’ expectations; and Puck, the brilliant writer stilted by self-doubt and alcoholism. It’s Cassie who holds the motley bunch together; her tough love never flinches.
In this, Kimmel’s second novel — the author’s previous works include The Solace of Leaving Early (2002) and the memoir A Girl Named Zippy (2000) — she dares to probe two sources of mystery: the tender, shaky bonds of family love, and the seedy underworld of the pool hall. Kimmel’s painstaking descriptions of the game are the product of extensive research — but what impresses more is the way Cassie’s very soul rises from that dark world, with her own sense of ethics intact. Cassie sets up her shots and sinks every one of them.
“‘I play American pool, not English billiards, and I’m not a shark,'” she tells one nosey inquirer. “That would be a person who pretends not to be a good player, then stole the money of her opponent. I just announce myself, I say I’ve come to a place to play their best, and for money, and that person is called. Or I wait for him.'”
The novel has its minor setbacks — Kimmel depends on lengthy scenes of memory, especially from Laura, to pair past with present. Such tactics as relating bygone events through a letter or monologue get the job done, but the effect can be tedious.
Still, I polished off the book’s 267 pages in two days — and it took at least that much time again to re-emerge from Kimmel’s dark, uplifting world.
Haven Kimmel reads from Something Rising (Light and Swift) at Malaprop’s Bookstore (55 Haywood St.; 254-6734) on Saturday, Jan. 24. The 7 p.m. event is free.