Nampa, Idaho native Vestal McIntyre packs the life of a whole town into his accomplished debut novel, Lake Overturn, set in the fictional Eula, outside of Boise. The characters are fresh and distinct with richly imagined inner lives, and they intersect with each other in unexpected ways. McIntyre writes about people in every level of Eula society with sensitivity and insight, from Abby Hall, the privileged Stanford-bound daughter of a lawyer who is nursing her dying mother through her final days, to Lina, the Mexican-American woman who cleans the Halls’ home, to Lina’s trailer-park neighbor Connie, an intelligent, devoutly religious single mother, to Wanda Cooper, a woman whose hard-knock beginnings led her into pain pill addiction but who seeks redemption and comes heartbreakingly close to achieving it. Lake Overturn is the sort of novel you can lose yourself in, a book you’ll want to pass to your friends so you’ll have somebody to talk about it with.
The plot of Lake Overturn builds gradually, the way great character-driven narratives often do, with a simple challenge facing Lina’s sharp son Enrique, who wants to enter and win the middle school science fair. He determines that the best partner for the project will be his neighbor Gene, Connie’s son, whose antisocial behaviors and interest in scientific calculations place him somewhere on the Asperger’s syndrome spectrum. Eventually they settle on a subject for the topic of their project: investigating the mysterious deaths of all the people in a Cameroonian village that seemed to be caused by the village’s lake. They eventually hit upon the concept of “lake overturn,” when carbon dioxide trapped under a lake is suddenly released, poisoning the nearby air. Enrique and Gene ask what would happen in Eula if a similar phenomenon occurred in nearby Lake Overlook.
Meanwhile, Chuck Hall coaxes Lina (who never married the currently absent father of her two sons) into giving him a kiss when she’s over to clean his house, and in her astonishment at her own behavior, Lina confesses it to Enrique. “It seemed so dirty,” Enrique thinks, “this kiss from some old man who liked watching her clean his toilet.”
We also meet John Cooper, the school bus driver who can tell when the kids are going to get out of hand. “A few bits of paper had sailed through the air, and when you had driven the bus as long as Coop had, you could read the signs that it would be a hard ride. Paper in the air before you even reached the subdivisions was like thrushes chattering in the treetops: a storm was brewing.”
Coop’s sister Wanda was raised in foster care after their parents died, and as Lake Overturn opens she’s reached a new low, impersonating a young man’s mother at a court appearance in exchange for money she uses to buy drugs. The woman she impersonates is named Theresa Wojciechowski, about which Wanda thinks, “It was an interesting name, and had dignity. It came from far away on a boat and kept its chin up against the battering winds of the sea.” Wanda decides to make herself useful, with the goal of becoming a surrogate mother for an infertile couple, something that won’t be easy with her criminal record.
Liz Padgett is Abby Hall’s best friend, and her twin brother Winston is a friend of Enrique’s older brother Jay. “On the exterior,” McIntyre writes, “Liz was a good-natured, diligent girl, a favorite of her teachers and the first everyone called when they needed a babysitter. But what they labeled a fine work ethic—the fierce determination with which she studied, volunteered, played tennis, and wrote for the Eula High Gazette–was in fact, a means to an escape. The quietest of rebels, Liz hated Eula secretly and with her every fiber…This escape was what Liz and Abby called the Big Plan.” Liz begins receiving notes from a secret admirer, and like many of the plot details that seem casually introduced, this ends up playing a big role in the novel’s conclusion.
McIntyre’s descriptions are accurate and arresting, such as this one of the landscape near Eula:
“Here the sagebrush never changed color but remained forever the same silvery blue, a shade other plants turned only when they were dead. But while sage would have looked pale next to a plant that grew in a a more generous climate, it looked positively lush in comparison to the tumbleweeds that tangled with it and the yellow cheat grass that sprang up between its branches.”
McIntyre shows an uncommon understanding of the religions of his characters, writing from Lina’s Catholic perspective, Connie’s born-again Christian viewpoint, and about Abby’s mother’s Mormon beliefs with authority and nuance. He weaves in faith during unexpected moments, such as in this passage:
“December would often end without the arrival of snow. When it finally fell, people would remember why they had been hoping for it all that time: their yellow, broken gardens were buried and the trees were full again, only this time full of jewels. Snow was like a good sermon that made everything simple and clear: there was the snow and the sky, with Eula wedged cozily in-between.”
McIntyre also excels in portraying the trials of adolescence, particularly through his depiction of Enrique, who is beginning to realize that he is attracted to men, and that he must hide this fact in order to survive. The story of Enrique is like a first-rate coming-of-age narrative embedded within this larger examination of a town.
Lake Overturn is structured cleverly in sections whose themes are based on the successive parts of the scientific method: problem, research, hypothesis, experimentation, analysis, and results. All of the stories converge in an elegant way at the end. McIntyre told The Advocate, “I wanted to write a big book with a broad perspective, like a good 19th-century novel. I love those Victorian novels with a lot of characters like Trollope and Dickens had.” And while he has achieved this, Lake Overturn feels very American to me, on par with Richard Russo’s fine, lengthy evocations of small-town life.
Lake Overturn is a Novel with a capital N—it does everything that great novels have always done: entertaining, transporting, edifying, and ultimately satisfying the reader, and McIntyre has written it with incredible heart.