By Stacey Swann
In her essay “Notes on Writing a Novel,” Elizabeth Bowen declares, “Nothing can happen nowhere.” This alliterative mantra, at once obvious and wise, reminds writers that they need a somewhere for the drama to unfold, be it a mansion’s foyer or the surface of the moon. Luckily for Stacey Swann, her appealing debut novel, “Olympus, Texas,” has plenty of somewhere for its cast of memorable characters to enact their displays of love, lust, rage and resentment.
The book is named after a town east of Houston, which “settled at a population of 2,000 and stuck there.” Most of the novel’s players were sired by Peter Briscoe, a local real estate magnate who rents to many of its residents. For the Briscoe clan, Olympus — with the familiar curves and sounds of the Brazos River, as well as smoke-stink bars and pervasive gossip — has shaped and misshaped them. Kind of like family itself.
When the novel opens, Peter’s second son, March, has returned after a two-and-a-half-year self-imposed exile, penance for sleeping with his brother’s wife, Vera. Another son, Arlo, has also just ridden in; he’s returned from his country music tour to learn that his twin sister, Artie (yes, their similar names are confusing), has fallen for a man whose mother still blames Peter for the loss of her family farm decades prior. Artie and Arlo are the product of an affair Peter had before March was born; this wasn’t Peter’s first affair, and it wasn’t his first to result in a pregnancy, either. As Peter’s wife, June, notes: “Peter is a man who loves with deliberation, but his lust is not so orderly.”
What occurs over the course of the next 300 or so pages, including more than one physical fight, a couple of illicit romances and a tragic death, plays out against the backdrop of this town. Arlo tells Artie, “No secrets in Olympus,” and yet there is a surplus of buried hurt and unspoken disappointments within the Briscoe family. It may be difficult for these characters to realize their flaws and tangled desires, but it sure is pleasurable to read about them.
Although the book takes place over just six days, occasional interludes provide rich portraits of a character’s history: “The Origin of March’s Rages” is one, and “The Origin of Vera’s Broken Heart” is another. In these sections, Swann condenses a character’s brambly pain into a self-contained back story that is simultaneously brief and complex — a myth, if you will. Mythology allusions are sprinkled throughout the text: the town’s name, for instance, and the names of March’s dogs, Romulus and Remus. Even the local burlesque club is called Terpsichore’s — though most residents call it the Sickery, a far better name. Over all, the mythological lens feels inoffensive but unnecessary; most of the time it made me wonder why more characters weren’t aware of the allusions.
Swann’s novel is most successful at its violent, surprising turning point. I won’t dare to give it away. I read without breathing — OK, maybe I gasped — and I experienced the characters’ grief and regret as if they were my own. However, once the narrative moved past this climactic event, it too often relied on confessional or confrontational dialogue to do its dramatic work. The town of Olympus faded into the background, and the story felt a bit inert.
Not that this kept me from turning its pages and finding pleasure in its revelations, as when Peter’s brother Hayden remarks, “I guess I understand how one action can lead to things you never imagined, how you can always second-guess yourself about different choices you might have made.”
I could have stayed in this particular somewhere for a long while.