“There were strangers on the porch of their Oakland, California, bungalow . . .” And with that first sentence, author Ericka Lutz opens her novel The Edge of Maybe (Last Light Studio, $13.95) with “a stranger comes to town,” one of Leo Tolstoy’s two classic storylines. Before its compact 300-plus pages are over, Edge also jumps in with the second, “someone goes on a journey.” The journey will be physical—from the San Francisco Bay Area to points just east, “a shadow world where casinos abutted desert malls and flatlands”—and quite internal, as each of the book’s three narrators goes on a journey of transformation and reinvention.
The Bay Area has long been both home and muse for Lutz, who has for years been a prominent West Coast author, performer, and teacher. Lutz’s books include On the Go with Baby: A Stress-free Guide to Getting Across Town or Around the World and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Friendship for Teens; her fiction and creative nonfiction have been published in numerous literary journals and magazines; and she blogs at Literary Mama and Red Room. For years she never mentioned her grandmother Tillie Olsen, lest readers not know Lutz’s craft, her complexity of thought, and her poet’s voice as her own. The Edge of Maybe speaks to those spaces in-between, both geographically and spiritually, that we mostly don’t think exist in the certainty of youth. In particular, those in-between spaces that we carve out in our lives and relationships, Lutz posits, are what help us get this far, and only if we learn to laugh about it.
“You guys were so cool when you were young,” a teenage friend tells Kira, one of the book’s narrators. That thought both haunts and sustains Kira and her husband, whose relationship anchors the story much as it does their lives. “They were almost the same height; she wore his shirts to bed; when younger, they’d traded clothes, gotten the same hair cuts. Now they didn’t look the same anymore, except perhaps the expressions on their faces, their hand gestures. So many years together.”
Back then, Adam was a punk-rocker and Kira the band girlfriend, and The Edge of Maybe‘s story is kicked off by an unexpected echo of those days: That stranger coming to town, Amber, arrives with her toddler son Joey, calls Adam “Daddy,” and may or may not be his daughter. Either way, Amber becomes the family’s unwelcome ambassador from that “shadow world” Adam fears,”where kicks and boredom combined into bouts of methamphetamine poisoning . . . the outside world of rotted teeth and facial sores and planetary dismay.”
At first we know Amber only through the shellshocked narration of the Bay Area narrators, whose anguish speaks as much to their own midlife woes as to her. “Amber and Joey trailed Kira into the house, through the living room, dining room, into the kitchen. [Kira's] work clothes pressed in on her, a fleeting longing for her yoga pants, a life without negotiations and confrontations and complications.” Adam wants that life too: “He had not finished being young, and now it was over. He was tired. F**k it. Bills and jobs and being old. F**k it all.” The third narrator, and the first to take Amber on her own terms, is the couple’s 15-year-old daughter, Polly, who provides all the black-and-white drama and certainty that her parents think they miss.
As the three confront the reality of this unexpected addition to their family (Polly calls them “the relatives,” a happy phrase for an only child), the resulting upheaval fractures the family: the results include illness, financial ruin, and infidelity. Will Kira leave Adam for her sexy yoga teacher? Will Adam’s old addiction claim him? And what secret pain is Polly hiding, unnoticed by both of them?
Throughout, however, readers are likely still laughing from the satire. At Kira’s preferred yoga studio, she can’t help noticing
Those woo-woo boys, the Burning Man boys: ponytails and generous sideburns, high clear foreheads, gentle tenor voices, steeped-tea brown eyes, surfer-boy legs sticking out of soy-based cargo shorts, Sanskrit and tribal black tattoos around wrists and biceps, loose walks, fake Eastern names changed from Brent or Brian. Several of those boys taught at the Y, matched sets with the Gitas and Shavitras and Lakshmis—blonde, taut women who, in the eighties, would have had names ending in “i,” like “Debbi,” and who would have taught jazz aerobics instead of yoga.
Note the generational hiss of that last phrase. And those who’ve spent time in the Bay Area may giggle at this heroic catalogue of fine dining:
El Huarache and El Centenario on International Avenue. Cheap Japanese food at Mikado on Grand, Kira’s favorite. Vegan macro-biotic cooked by Tibetans at Manzanita Restaurant, though not when Polly could help it. Until the first Mad Cow scare they’d patronized East Oakland pho houses for rich, deep beef noodle soup. Soul food at Wilma’s Catfish Kitchen on San Pablo, discovered the afternoon Polly and Adam met Wilma waiting next to them at the Touchless Carwash when they were washing Kira’s Saab because some freak wrote “I wish my girlfriend was this dirty” with his finger on the back window. Doña Tomas; the best yuppie Mexican in town. Cactus, the cheapest yuppie Mexican in town. Pasta Pomodoro. The much-mocked, much-loved Café Gratitude in Berkeley, where the vegetables and nut dishes were raw and alive, and the dish names were affirmations: “I Am Welcoming,” “I Am Evolved,” “I Am Eternally Blessed.”
That catalogue, of course, is one of guilt: “Driving to eat locally grown food. Wasting resources, even in the Prius…” Lutz’s satire both loves this trio of native Californians and pokes gentle fun at the lives they’ve built, and by extension at herself and all of us.
The one major non-California character, Amber, pokes fun with less gentleness, after listening to their UC-Berkeley crowd talk about saving lives in Central America: “You’re making me sick . . . talking what you don’t know shit about. Going to fix some other country’s problems when we have it right here in America. Me and Steve was living near Henderson when I got pregnant with Joey, all this perchlorate in the water and we didn’t even know it. . . . And you all talk, talk, talk. We might be a bunch of buckaroos where I live, but at least we’re real.” And so the preconceptions of everyone in the room, including the reader, begin to tumble as things fall apart.
To some the novel may feel superficial, though the worries its characters tear at certainly are not. The story overall, despite its dramatic events, has a sort of Shakespearean-comedy feel, a sense that all the couples will converge and the cycle of life will triumph. It did occur to me that those same Shakespearian qualities, not unexpected in a novel by a performer (at right, Lutz in her January 2011 one-woman show A Widow’s T0-Do List), might also make the book a good fit for Hollywood, and I started throwing around potential stars for the movie. Julianne Moore as Kira? Charlie Sheen as the woo-woo Yoga Guy? Who knows? In Lutz’s book—as we hope will happen in life—the things that fall apart reassemble in other ways, surprising our younger selves.
If you’re in the Bay Area and curious about the book, Stage Werx in San Francisco is hosting a A Night on The Edge, a launch party and performance tomorrow, February 29, at 7 p.m. Tickets and more information at the link.