When Robert Johnson used to hang around the shows of his hero, the older bluesman Son House, he wasn't very impressive. Then he started woodshedding and came back, doing things with the guitar that no one had ever seen before. And so began the story that he'd sold his soul to the devil.
Though she has always been a good writer, people might suspect the same of Jen Michalski when they read her new novel, The Tide King (Black Lawrence), a book that is both astoundingly realistic and decidely magical. Could You Be With Her Now, Michalski's last book, a pair of novellas, was sure-footed and self-controlled. It was also modest in both scope and ambition. The Tide King, on the other hand, is wildly ambitious, tremendous in scope-and even more self-assured. It is rare for such a vast book to feature hardly a false step, but Michalski pulls it off spectacularly-in a way that completely sucks you into its world with an absorptive and obsessive pleasure that makes one want to binge on it the way modern television dramas do.
The books spans the period between 1806 and 1976-but in some ways "span" is not the right verb. Rather, it swerves between years and countries, from Baltimore to Poland to Germany to Montana and back to Poland, following its several, at first seemingly disconnected characters in a seemingly non-chronological fashion.
The book begins with a brief prologue set in 1976 when a man, a woman, and a child catch a cab in Reszel, Poland. When the cabbie asks the young girl, who speaks Polish, who they are, she inquires of her companions: "Should I tell him we are gods who live in hell?"
From here, Michalski brings us to 1942 Baltimore as Stanley Polensky prepares to go to war. And though his mother gives him a magic herb, "burnette saxifrage," that is supposed to promise immortality, Polensky doesn't take her too seriously, and the next 20 or so pages propel us through the war, detailing the growing friendship between Polensky and a Midwesterner named Calvin Johnson in beautiful, naturalistic language. "He shivered when he was awake and he shivered when he was dreaming. His breath was staccatoed with shivers. He shivered when he peed and he shivered when he shat and he shivered when he shivered. Stanley would eat his shivers, if he could, but they would probably give him diarrhea, he thought, like everything else."
It seems like the book will follow Polensky, but suddenly Johnson is killed and we are in Poland in 1806 with a young girl named Ela Zdunk and her mother, Barbara, who live together in a hut made of bones and mud. Everyone thinks they are witches. And here, as the supernatural element of the story takes on a larger role, Michalski is every bit as convincing as she is in the war-in such a way that this root, which promises immortality, doesn't come across as supernatural at all. Or at least when it does, it is with the cold, realistic eeriness of the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (though there is also some of the warmth of Garcia Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude). When the Prussians come to invade, the little girl, Ela, is shot, and later her mother is burned.
It will not give away too much to say that neither Johnson nor Ela are really dead, and Michalski expertly weaves her plot, jumping back and forth in time, so that their stories ultimately merge, like an expert fugue, filled with fascinating set pieces.
Ela's body was frozen in time as a little girl when she took the herb, and when he returns to Baltimore, Polensky meets a woman (who could in fact be Ela) with a similar condition, who becomes a famous country singer in a segment of the book that reads like it could have come straight from Harry Crews' rough-and-tumble grit-lit masterpiece The Gospel Singer. When Johnson goes to Montana looking for Polensky after the war, we could be in a novel by Kerouac or Cormac McCarthy's Suttree. The truly magical thing is that none of this comes across as pastiche. All of Michalski's different modes offer the continuity of voice and style at the level of the sentence and the individual moment. Michalski is masterful at describing moments when things are too fast or too intense to measure; she slows down time, making each detail clear. "The beach grew on each end; he could see the bunkers of the Germans beyond the dunes. Pinholes of light flicked from them; the water spit bullets around him in response. He aimed his rifle toward the hole and fired, the kick pulled him forward."
Her description of D-Day is well-matched with the more intimate descriptions of a first kiss: "Before he could react, she placed her lips on his. He could feel things in his heart, moving around slippery in his mouth, marbles of live and desire and marriage, marbles that had never risen above his pants with Eva, along with other lumps that he swallowed as she rested her head on his shoulder and they breathed the small space of air between them until there was no air left. Love was hunger, was suffocation. But also soft quiet, the rise of her chest on his, the weight of her head on his shoulder."
The real genius of this book-and it is genius-is that its narrative device allows Michalski to take the long view of her characters and show how they change over great periods of time. Sure, plenty of vampire novels deal with the sadness of watching those around you age and die while you remain, but Michalski brings a great deal more sensitivity to the problem than most authors. One of the novellas in her last book dealt with the romance between an elderly and a younger woman, and The Tide King takes the problems and the narrative promises of that romance and extends and twists them. The little girl we meet at the beginning is actually nearly 200 years old, the woman, only 22.
Stanley Polensky feels like the main character in the first sections of the book, but later, when Johnson and Ela have gained immortality, this initial focus seems as if it has been left bereft, all but abandoned-as Polensky feels about his own life. "But now the fear in him was dead, along with everything else," Michalski writes of his homecoming. "He simply didn't care about anything anymore. Stanley Polensky had left this house, left for the war, but he had not come back. And he could wait for him no longer. He walked down to the bar to get some whiskey."
Polensky no longer knows himself as he shucks oysters in Locust Point, avoiding his brothers and their jobs at Sparrows Point, or as he gambles with Russians on Thames Street shortly after his return, and he still has not made peace with himself when we find him, a hardened and bitter old man who thinks Johnson is a ghost come to haunt him.
When the book is over, we realize, however, that the story really is about Polensky, that Johnson and Ela are the Olympians who allow us to see the poignancy in the story of the mortal warrior, the Odysseus who is broken and can never find his way home again. The story is as old as the Epic of Gilgamesh, which also features an herb of immortality, and, in this gorgeous novel, Jen Michalski tells it as well as anyone ever has.
Jen Michalski will be discussing the Tide King with Gregg Wilhelm at Ivy Bookshop on Monday, Aug. 26. For more information, please visit theivybookshop.com