Tumbledown (Graywolf, 429 pages, $26) is a book about shallow love, lust and sex in a mental institution. The plot is a complicated web of love triangles, and by the end you'll know exactly—relevant to the overall plot or not—how each character is in bed, what they smell like, what their favorite movies are, how many times they have tried to kill themselves and their exact IQs.
The story is told in a number of ways, some effective, some not. Robert Boswell will sometimes break into a numbered list in the middle of a chapter to provide additional information of varying relevance. At one point—just before Boswell finishes the chapter in the form of a psychological examination—we're given a 20-item list of thoughts the protagonist had about his damaged older brother as a child. Later, a character has a question-and-answer session with his own psyche as he contemplates his medication. During one long sequence, the tense of the prose switches from past to present, with every other paragraph jumping between two possible alternate realities. Though the experiments are admirable, the constant shifts in style grow tiring.
Primarily, we follow James Candler, a counselor at a mental hospital in Southern California. As he faces a promotion and impending marriage to a woman he doesn't love, he embarks on a clandestine two-week relationship with a former patient who's been stalking him for years. Meanwhile, a group of Candler's "clients" (he's not allowed to call them patients) get involved in a number of tangled love triangles, which Candler has to juggle in order to avoid jeopardizing his looming promotion while dealing with his own repressed mental and sexual issues.
Candler's patients—including a technical genius with anger issues, a gorgeous girl with the intellect of a brick, and a chronic public masturbator—occupy a subplot that deals with suicide and love between damaged people. Boswell explores each one's mental and sexual hang-ups so thoroughly you'll quickly find yourself suffering from too much information. At times, we're introduced to characters who have minimal significance to the plot, but Boswell insists on spending multiple pages detailing each one's life story.
While Tumbledown is an interesting study of how lust can tear apart a person's psyche, it tries to do far too much with far too many characters. To enjoy this book, you need to be willing to let Boswell digress from his plot for lengthy passages as he details every character's history and mocks politicians with made-up IQ ratings. He thinks Vladimir Putin sits at 77, by the way.
GO: Robert Boswell reads at Powell's Books on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., on Monday, Sept. 16. 7:30 pm. Free.