A Review by P.T. Butler
Paulette Livers’s novel Cementville (Counterpoint Press, 2014) centers upon a small Kentucky town grappling with the changes forced upon it during the Vietnam War. Eight of the town’s young men are brought back in boxes and two others come back wounded mentally, if not physically. It seems nearly the entire town is affected in one way or the other and to make matters more difficult, three murders occur within a short period of time.
Livers does a lot of things very right in this novel, not surprising as it is on the long list for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. There are many extraordinary sentences: “The last of the sun washed a ribbon of gold over the ridge across the valley.” Her descriptions of setting are vivid and sensuous. Her characters are well-drawn and interesting. There is fifteen-year-old Maureen, a memoirist and younger sibling to Billy, one of the two returned and struggling vets. Maureen’s Uncle Carl, recently released from a mental hospital after fifteen years; Wanda, once Carl’s love interest, a shy yet compassionate woman who still lives with her mother and is set to inherit a fortune. From the time that Livers takes us inside one of her characters, we are mostly drawn in and fully-absorbed by this world Livers creates so well.
But the problem with Cementville is that there are too many characters to keep track of and to get to know. The entire time I kept wishing for a character chart that I could refer to as the novel slips from one POV to another and through so many, even the town has a voice. The novel reads like an interconnected set of stories in the vein of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad or Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. The difference being that in Egan’s and Strout’s books I had no difficulty keeping up with who was who and how they interconnected.
In Cementville we don’t spend enough time with any single one character or family to become emotionally attached enough to care when they are murdered or commit suicide, and this felt like a terrible disappointment to me. I wanted to care about all of these people, but found myself only engaged with a few of them. I kept wondering how the novel would have played out if Maureen had told the entire story. I think I would’ve preferred that. At the least, I think I needed the novel to speak in the voices of a handful of people, rather than a baker’s dozen or so.
But, let’s get back to the premise of the novel, the opening scenes of the story: seven National Guardsmen all killed in one night in Vietnam and all from Cementville. And this is exactly my criticism- let’s get back to this, because the novel never does. Livers never gives us the story of those seven men, except in a footnote in the afterword. It seems to not even matter to the plot of the novel, since the novel focuses upon the return of the POWs, Carl, Billy and another young man, Byard (whose been hiding in Canada). The poignant return of these people into their community is muddied, I think, with the rash of murders and the solving of these murders. It all felt very disconnected to me. What kind of story am I reading? A mystery? A novel that addresses the harsh reality of life after the war for our men who served? Or a novel like Louise Erdrich’s masterful Love Medicine in which we come to understand how families interconnect much like the spokes of a wheel? What drives the wheel of Cementville and the intermarried, interrelated families that live there? I’m not really sure.
I finished the book not really sure what some of the story had to do with the rest of the novel and I didn’t like that. I don’t need things wrapped up or all tied in a bow, but I need the elements of a novel to matter to the essence of the story. And I still cannot pinpoint the essence of Cementville and that leaves me hanging. That is an uncomfortable feeling, despite the poetic prose which I greatly admired.