Swing State is author (and Razorcake contributor) Michael T. Fournier’s second novel. In this book, Fournier writes about three characters looking for a way out of Armbrister, their dying New Hampshire town. Entire chapters are dedicated to individual characters, with their stories eventually intersecting at the end of the novel. There’s Royal (Roy) Eggleston, the Afghanistan War veteran whose PTSD causes him to have a difficult time readjusting to life back in his hometown (and which causes him to think in short, staccato sentences). There’s Zachariah Tietz, an overweight, friendless teen who lives with an abusive father. And there’s Dixon Dove, a girl whose biggest claim to fame in town is that her brother is the star of the local football team and might have a chance to get out of Armbrister. She’s also a bully and small-time thief, but who hopes she can save money to make it out of town, too.
It took me a while to figure out which characters were which and that Dixon was a female, but after the first few chapters I started to pick up on who was who and their respective backgrounds. Additionally, the chapters for Roy were written in a different style than the other characters, in a manner that reflects his mindset due to the PTSD from which he suffers. It becomes easier to read after the first chapter or two dedicated to his character. Thankfully, the chapters for the other two characters aren’t written in the same style. These are the only real critiques I had of SwingState, with one exception.
The ending isn’t the happiest one. While I’m not necessarily a fan of unrealistic, everything-works-out-fine finales, I still hoped for some kind of resolution for the characters that might be a little positive, especially for Zachariah or Roy, for whom I felt a great deal of sympathy. While not wanting to give away the ending, let’s just say that it doesn’t appear the characters are going to make it out of Armbrister.
I understand and respect this no-holds-barred and realistic take on life in this environment, and appreciate the critique it’s making of the economic downturn and how it affects people so dramatically, but in the words of Harvey Milk: “You gotta give ‘em hope.” Even a slight glimpse of it would’ve been good. In my darker days, I probably could’ve gotten one hundred percent behind the way Fournier presents the ending. I suppose that says a lot of how I’ve changed as a person, but it’s hard to read about tough times for (primarily) sympathetic characters.
Fournier is a talented writer. I wanted to get back to reading this every chance I had, which is more than I can say about a lot of stuff I’ve been reading as of late. The way the characters become sympathetic and the background Fournier gives to each of them is seamless. His ability to also weave in chapters of Zachariah’s dream to be the creator of a reality dating show is perfect. It not only builds the depth of the character, but also makes it that much more painful to see the abuse he endures from his father and peers in school and. At no point did I say, “This is entirely unrealistic,” or “I don’t care about these people at all.” I wanted to see them all succeed because of the fullness of character the author develops and the great level of unfairness they endured.
This makes the ending all that much harder to swallow. The only thing I can hope for is that somewhere beyond the ending of this book, things can change and perhaps they’ll find their version of success—even making it to Concord, New Hampshire, would be wonderful. For now, this critique on the economic “greatness” of America stands as an honest glimpse into three personalities struggling to realize that dream. –Kurt Morris (Three Rooms Press, threeroomspress.com)