Atticus Lish's second novel, "The War for Gloria," is a book about men. To say that about a book in 2021 implies certain things. That perhaps it's a lyrical critique of machismo or a meditation on the sensitive inner lives beneath tough-guy exteriors.
Nope. "Meditation" isn't in Lish's vocabulary — his prose is too rooted in clear physical detail and plain speech for that. And though he's interested in what makes men men, he approaches his story bluntly, fistwise. "Gloria" is a deeply immersive novel, steeped in tragedies — the chief one being characters who try to muscle their way through problems for lack of other ideas.
The novel's hero, Corey, comes of age in present-day Quincy, an "upper-class poor, lower-class rich" suburb of Boston, with a single mother — the Gloria of the title — who's trying to escape suburban convention. She's a yoga-loving vegan with a bland day job but a creative streak. That all ends when she's diagnosed with ALS. There's no bright side to the progressively debilitating, terminal disease, and she has little help managing the mountain of disability paperwork now thrust at her. "It struck Gloria that the story of her death was beginning as a homework assignment," Lish writes.
Corey wants to help, but he's cast into a variety of directions that leave him at a loss for what "help" is. Focus on his studies? He's smart but routinely cut down by his intermittently present and always officious father, Leonard, whose intelligence leaves Corey feeling as if he has a mountain to climb. A peer named Adrian leaves Corey impressed both physically and intellectually. But Adrian is also prone to step-away-slowly pronouncements, such as how his studies are "a way of overcoming problems and controlling the universe."
If not school, what about work? Corey takes on construction jobs, but his co-workers always seem grimly encumbered: "You could see invisible responsibility hanging on them — payments for vehicles and homes, children and women." When school and work don't satisfy — and girls are too baffling to even contemplate — he throws himself for a time into mixed martial arts.
His resolve swells — "he decided he would get his gear, his game, his life in order" — then deflates. MMA success demands constant attention to his body, but his body is all but drawn and quartered by Gloria's needs and his burdened psyche.
"The War for Gloria" is almost an unintentional satire of Great Men narratives, in which determined men move from strength to strength and climb a ladder to attainment. Here, Corey scraps and battles only to wind up in the same place he began. A brief attempt to deal drugs fails badly, but his nobler efforts collapse, too. He resolves that "he was going to study nothing but one thing: His mother's illness." But caretaking is another burden that's beyond him, and Leonard's violent treatment of Gloria makes Corey feel both rageful and outclassed.
Lish makes this kind of despair consistently engrossing, in part because he's so rigorously poker-faced. Though he writes from an Olympian third-person, he delivers no commentary on his characters' dilemmas, no winking pronouncements or broader messages. His lens is steadily trained on Corey's predicament, Gloria's failing body or the peculiar friendship that develops between Leonard and Adrian.
Lish has an eye for the details — of Quincy in general and Corey's home in particular — that's downright Victorian, a talent he demonstrated in his first novel, 2014's "Preparation for the Next Life," published by the indie press Tyrant Books. (Its founder, Giancarlo DiTrapano, who died earlier this year, had an affinity for streetwise writers.) He knows much of this turf intimately: His mother was diagnosed with ALS when she was a teen, and he's fought in MMA matches. He's also practically been raised for the gig: His father, Gordon Lish, a longtime literary eminence, is perhaps best known for ruthless editing of Raymond Carver stories that ushered in the age of dirty realism in the '80s.
But if Corey and Gloria's stories are told from deep in the grit of their hard living, Lish also has an absurdist's touch. Adrian, the wunderkind that Corey admired so much in high school, becomes a troubling and strange figure at MIT, brilliant but prone to antics like nailing a cheeseburger to his dorm wall and letting it fester, or commandeering a dorm lounge with Leonard, a security guard at the school, to watch porn.
When the novel takes a somewhat ungainly turn into a murder mystery in the later stages, Corey's good (if occasionally rageful) intentions are pitted against Leonard and Adrian's off-kilter urges to prove themselves. Police are involved; proverbial walls close in.
Corey develops a "picture of the world as a place with no rules except those that good people managed to enforce on their own." But how do you become a good person? And how do you remain a good person when so many avenues are blocked, either from harsh reality or a social norm about what being a man is? As the novel's title implies, Gloria's well-being hinges on the answer to those questions. But these men, in this predicament, are hardly up to the job. Masculinity, culturally sold as liberation or power, becomes a trap.
Corey, at one point, laments his missed opportunity to fight in an MMA ring: "He had always thought he was going to get back in the cage." But, as this story makes clear, he's always been in one.
Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and author of "The New Midwest."
The War for Gloria
By: Atticus Lish.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 464 pages, $28.
COMING SUNDAY: A review of "Smile," by Sarah Ruhl.