By Curtis Smith
Braddock Avenue Books
Reviewed by Charles Holdefer
How do you pick up the pieces when you are one of the pieces? Curtis Smith's Lovepain asks this question in the context of America's opioid crisis, exploring its toll not only on addicts, but on their families and the entire social fabric. Author of a dozen books and more than one hundred published stories and essays, Smith delivers a novel of powerful, taut storytelling where the stakes are high.
Lovepain's protagonist is Eli, a social worker whose wife Kate, a recovering addict, goes off the rails and abandons him and their young son, Mark. With a sickening lurch, Eli finds himself "a passenger on a ride beyond his control, no graceful exits in sight."
Eli knows that Kate is using again, and his immediate responsibility is to protect his son. In addition to the double-duty of being a single parent—extra chores, less sleep—he also makes expedient calculations. Eli doesn't tell Mark that his mother has left them, but concocts an excuse that she is away helping a sick relative, making Kate sound like a hero.
At first, this approach seems a mercy, a lie as innocent as the boy himself. A child doesn't need to know of "squalor, degradation [. . .] the prices of dose and bliss." But, as time passes, as Eli structures the child's life around falsehood and evasion—for instance, he forges fake letters from Kate to his son—the situation becomes messier. Is Eli sparing the boy, or sparing himself? When is pain an unavoidable condition of love? Eli muses:
Lovepain. It was a word he and Kate had created, the shorthand unique to couples. Lovepain, the condition of a soul so filled it ached. Lovepain, two syllables, like the beating of a heart, flub-dub. Before Mark, Eli couldn't have comprehended such a force. Now he couldn't escape its pang.
Smith has written probingly of father and son relationships in his 2015 essay collection Communion, and he is very good at capturing both the power and fragility of innocence. It's an arresting paradox, and also one that can break your heart. Lovepain also underlines how the power that comes with knowledge—the so-called grown-up world with its codes of responsibility, of defending the trappings of civilization—is fragile, too.
Eli, who is by appearances a careful and thoughtful man, discovers new vulnerabilities, especially in light of the realization that before Kate's departure, she was unfaithful to him. His calm façade is shattered by violent outbursts: he instigates a basketball game punch-up, attacks a van with a wrench, and defends himself mercilessly against an aggressive drunk. In these visceral, dramatic scenes, another side of Eli emerges, "unleashed from the backwaters of his soul. A rage rooted in longing and instinct."
Here Smith offers a hard-won, intriguing insight which has nothing to do with more simple depictions of violence, a common sugar rush in much contemporary storytelling. The root of Eli's rage is spiritual. Raised a Catholic, he is no longer a believer, but he remains animated by a God-haunted "lovepain." His spiritual predicament in some respects reminds me of the narrator of Knut Hamsun's Hunger, who described being poked by the finger of God, which left "an open hole" and a "wound in my brain." Henceforward, he can never be the same.
Before she abandoned the family, Kate had returned to religion, which helped her recovery. Now, without her, Mark urges Eli to take him to church. Eli half-heartedly complies and, in an ironic twist that provides some of the novel's more humorous moments, he gets roped into assisting with the children's Christmas pageant. Eli can't summon belief, but he is nonetheless affected. He's the sort of atheist who still prays.
Here was the start of the boy's spiritual journey, and even if Eli didn't believe, he was thankful his son was beginning with the model of a God who suffered as man suffered . . . He rested his forehead against his clasped hands. He prayed for Kate . . . For the boy hurt and lied to by those he loved most. He sat up, suddenly weary, as if he'd run a great distance.
Yet Eli still has farther to run. Other strands of the story involve his job, the disconnect between his endless paperwork and the pain on the street, as he tries to help a client who also struggles with addiction, whereupon the division between the professional and the personal breaks down. In the face of futility and loss, the sense that "entire worlds had slipped through his fingers," Eli feels he must still reach out, that it is the only measuring stick he possesses.
For the zealot and the terminally content, the light shone brighter than the sun. For Eli, that glow was destined to flicker, more delicate than a match cupped against the wind. Whether he felt the warmth within his hands or the chill all around was a choice that made all the difference.
This statement sums up Smith's sensibility. There is much tenderness in this novel, a tenderness born not of softness, but of wisdom of a world of hurt. The book's title is itself a sobering pun: a primary assertion of love, but with the knowledge that its essential creation comes at a price. Lovepain is simultaneously an embrace and a howl, and a testimony to why literary fiction still matters.