By Michael Griffith


Triquarterly Books
March 2011

Reviewed by Alexander Lumans


At the end of Michael Griffith's Trophy, the protagonist, Vada Prickett, dies. In the middle of the book, he is dying. And in the first chapter (an epilogue, no less, that's a letter written to the Lexington Gazette ridiculing its previous article about Vada's "Freak Mishap"), he is already dead. I have ruined nothing for you. It is, in fact, integral to the novel's dramatic tension to know that Vada is dying. It's not a tension drawn from the possibility that he will miraculously recover from his fatal accident. All hope of that is quickly dismissed:

Vada couldn't tell you how many times, in his thirty years topside, he's heard that saw about your whole life flashing before your eyes when you die. It's a movie cliché, like amnesia, multiple personalities, Neanderthal lardos with slumming starlet wives, villains shot and shot and shot until they're human colanders, but who always rise amid swelling music to pose one last threat before being impaled on something weird, a weathervane or hood ornament.

Rather, Trophy pulls us in through our wanting to know if Vada's life, lived up to the point of no return, has been one worth reading about. This strikes me as an underlying concern of most, if not all stories; the reader wants reward and the story wants the reader to feel reward in ways that perhaps the reader is not expecting. Griffith deftly manipulates this pressure. He takes away the typical tension of whether a character will die, either at the hands of his opponents or by his own doing. In Vada's case, it's both. As a result, Griffith has the freedom to go anywhere with his story because he's released us from our own shackling expectations of conventional narrative arc without completely abandoning it himself.

Trophy is a countdown to Vada's last breath. While we watch him and listen to what he thinks in his final twenty minutes, the narrative steers us down all manner of entertaining, tangential avenues. It's these aberrations in the countdown that flesh out the rest of Vada's personality and introduce us to the characters orbiting him: his parents Vic and Celeste who were killed in a garbage truck accident, his unknowing love interest Darla, and his childhood and current frenemy Wyatt who is engaged to Darla. And just so we're clear on the genuine, enthralling oddness of this book: Vada, who works as a Hose Associate at a car wash in Lake Murray, South Carolina, dies because he's crushed by a giant taxidermized bear that he's helping Wyatt move as a wedding present for Darla.

This book calls to mind Barry Hannah for the sheer amount of blinding, halogen light that Griffith's sentences give off. There is serious, serious play at work here. Through his ability to both restrain himself and let loose narrative-wise, Griffith creates a mood and a rural Southern landscape that are in the same moment sublime and heartbreaking. "At last the husband buys his wife a souvenir, a magnet in the shape of a cartoon halibut. Everyone's doing this: a way of bringing home the feeling that, whatever frailties our relationship may have, it's sturdier than this." Similarly, Padgett Powell shows up in Griffith's adroit command of his own pool of words. He is not a writer who forgets the ingredients he's already added to the cauldron. His sentences weave in and out of themselves. They stitch his ideas together in an attempt to bind the wounds out of which Vada's lifeblood is constantly spilling:

Depth: a last refuge of the desperate, a place no one would go by choice. If there were another option, would the Loch Ness monster and giant squids and underwater zombies and so on live in cold and total darkness, their skins squeezed by pressures of a bajillion pounds per square inch? Vada can relate, guys—he and the squids and the swimming undead form a brotherhood of the compressed.

This is the way a novel's narrator should operate: one hand closing the wound, the other opening it right back up.

This contrast is one of the aspects I enjoyed most: the chapters' seemingly breezy wandering belies a very honed language that is recursive without being reductive or, even worse, recidivistic. Yes, there are 104 chapters in only 275 pages. But many of the chapters could stand as their own memory-centric vignettes: we learn about Vada's childhood dream of becoming a large animal veterinarian, we follow Vada to the funeral home to "mingle" his parents' ashes, and we meet Tisha (the closest thing Vada ever has to a girlfriend).  Some of them are only a paragraph long. Writing a novel made up of such short, self-contained parts is not easy, trust me.

Yet, one of the book's longest chapters is perhaps its funniest and most memorable. Darla, a TV weatherwoman, is doing an on-site summer special at the stadium of the local Christian baseball team: the Gilyard Risen. It's Apocalypse Night, which means all hell is bound to break loose hilariously (and be defeated by the good Christian Army, of course). The chapter also involves the team's mascot Pablo the Bible-Believing Possum, a mob of sweating choir kids, and an antiabortion aircraft. We later learn it's on this very night, with Wyatt out of town, that Darla stays over at Vada's house because, she says, "Right now you're the best friend I've got." Nothing happens between them, but this night instigates Vada's inevitable goal of breaking up Wyatt's marriage and taking Darla for himself.

One of my initial frictions with the writing was the occasional atonal interjection by the omniscient narrator. ("For someone who has spent his life—oops, chuck that—someone who spent"; "Do you get it? Sooner or later, dear reader, we all get it."; "Death is a mall we walk alone. Somebody write that down.") They disrupt the flow. But then I wondered: what's so terrible about witnessing this kind of explicit revision? These interjections do serve a purpose: they create the other half of the novel's tension. Tension not only in this tête-à-tête between the narrative's progress and this voice's ability to pause it, but tension also in the worry that this narrator is in danger of leaving something out. We read on to ensure he tells the best tale.

My other friction arose with the ending. But again, my expectation was that the villain (protagonist) would rise up one more time, bloody and half-crushed, for his grand finale. Vada doesn't. He dies like he is supposed to. What you come to learn in Trophy through Griffith's serious play is that Vada's internal life is richer and more rewarding than his external one ever could be. That alone is worth the price of admission. And it's worth watching him die for. As the narrator says at one point:

To wit: Defeats are made of sterner stuff than victories. They might not make the hundred-year plateau, but they last. There's a difference between the things other people retain about you and the things you'd like them to hang onto. The things they retain are humiliations. The things you'd like them to retain are trophies. And you can't force them to see it your way [. . .] Remember that time I won, everybody? Remember the moment when I was great, and the world bent to my will, and rivals curled at my feet, broken? No one will remember that. But when at last you lie curled at your rival's feet, broken? That's a different story.

That's this story.