“The Fall” by David Fulmer. Five Stones Press. 282 pages. $14.
David Fulmer will appear at a book launch party for “The Fall” at 7 p.m. March 12 at Eagle Eye Bookshop, 2076 N. Decatur Road, Decatur. Call 404-486-0307 for more information. Fulmer is also scheduled to appear at Bound to Be Read Books, 481-B Flat Shoals Avenue, S.E. in East Atlanta, at 7:30 p.m. on March 19. Call 404-522-0877 for more information.
By Soyia Ellison
“Bad things can happen in small towns,” an old librarian warns in “The Fall.” “Even hometowns.”
And bad things are most definitely happening in the shadows of the seemingly tranquil Wyanossing, Pa., hometown of actor Richard Zale, who has returned after decades away to say goodbye to his childhood best friend, Joey Sesco.
Joey died in a nighttime fall from a rock outcrop in a state park — news Richard didn’t learn until three weeks after the fact, and then only by chance. Compelled by memories of Joey and guilt over the disintegration of their friendship, he leaves New York without so much as a goodbye to his wife and daughters to travel four hours — and 30 years — back home.
Once there, he begins to wonder if Joey’s death was really an accident.
Joey had always been terrified of heights; he wouldn’t go anywhere near the edge of that outcrop when they were kids. And he’d been feuding with some powerful people, battling politicians over zoning and development issues and accusing the local power plant of dumping chemicals in the river.
Maybe he’d made the wrong person mad.
We already know his death was no accident — the book opens with four gorgeous paragraphs that imagine Joey’s final moments on earth. The question for us is who pushed him.
But mystery lovers will likely grow impatient waiting for developments. The whodunit is secondary here, really more of an excuse to examine the nature of friendships between boys growing into men, and what happens to those friendships when one person leaves home.
“From the time we were 14 until I turned 20 and left for the Army, we were a two-man wrecking machine,” Richard remembers. “I left Wyanossing and he stayed. We held it together for another 10 years, but eventually the strings that tied us stretched and broke and the friendship fell to pieces. I never again had a friend who was that close, who intertwined with the arc of my life.”
Coming home, Richard finds that everything and nothing has changed. He’s now a minor celebrity — everyone seems to recognize him from his Maxwell House commercial — but the guys who hated him in high school still hate him, and the girl who carried a torch for him in high school still hasn’t dropped it.
At times, it feels a little like a middle-aged man’s fantasy.
Richard fends off the advances of his high-school girlfriend and a hot young waitress, all the while his beautiful wife waits at home. He smokes pot with an old friend and gets in a bar fight with an old enemy. At least Fulmer has the good sense to make him suffer for it in the morning, when he can barely get out of bed.
“The Fall” is something of a departure for Fulmer, a long-time Atlantan. Not only is it his first book released by his own publishing house, it’s also his first set in (more or less) present day and his first in which jazz or blues don’t feature prominently.
Instead of gritty urban neighborhoods, Fulmer gives us a charming small town very much like the one in which he grew up.
Because of this and other similarities in the back stories of the real-life Fulmer and the fictional Richard, it’s tempting to see “The Fall” as semi-autobiographical.
The author punctuates the adventures of the present with memories of the past — Richard and Joey fondling their first girls, smoking pot on the eve of Richard’s departure for Vietnam, getting fired from the chicken-processing plant — and these are the moments that feel most real.
As a mystery, “The Fall” falls a little short. Its power lies in Fulmer’s gift for conjuring that mixture of pleasure and pain that accompanies youthful memories. Whether we long to go back, or long to escape, we never lose our connections to the places and people of our childhood.