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The Testing of Luther Albright

The Testing of Luther Albright

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Luther Albright, the fussy, maddening, heartbreaking narrator of MacKenzie Bezos’ outstanding first novel, The Testing of Luther Albright, is someone you know. He’s the prissy colleague who never goes out for drinks and refuses to partake in office gossip. He’s the fastidious owner of the local hardware store who can answer in mind-numbing detail any question about grout but never, ever flirts. He’s the most shockingly boring boyfriend you ever had, the one you chose because he seemed solid and decent. He was both, and it wasn’t anything like enough.

Bezos lays bare the inner life of the repressed American Everyman in her exquisite, excruciating portrait of Luther, a buttoned-up government engineer who builds dams in California’s Central Valley. Yes, the dammed-up man builds dams — a breathtakingly unsubtle metaphor for which Bezos can be forgiven because she wrings every last delicious drop of meaning from Luther’s water work. From 9 to 5 Luther designs restraints for mighty tributaries, and at night he tinkers with the plumbing in his hand-built, lovingly maintained Sacramento home. Unclogging a drain is how he shows love for his wife, Liz, and their adolescent son, Elliot.

Before his marriage to Liz, Luther had composed a sad little list of attributes he was looking for in a mate: ”Quiet; patient; not too pretty.” As fate would have it, he ended up with Liz, an outgoing, kindhearted knockout. ”The truth is her conspicuous beauty made me nervous, and it was she who finally had to suggest I take her out to dinner,” Luther recalls. To the naive young Liz, Luther’s lack of animal vitality had looked like high-minded respect.

Luther suspects that Liz’s feelings have changed over their 22-year relationship, but he’ll never know because he would never ask. He avoids intimate conversations and answers personal questions with platitudes. But while Liz may or may not have resigned herself to Luther’s reticence, Elliot, at 15, wants more. The novel chronicles the boy’s escalating attempts to goad his father into intimacy, or any expression of strong emotion. Elliot shaves his head; he leaves a pair of girl’s underpants hanging in his bathroom. Luther, though curious, won’t ask the obvious questions. ”I trust that you tell me what you want me to know” becomes his cop-out line. He cannot, or will not, be provoked.

Except maybe by plumbing. Sewer gas begins to seep from a pipe somewhere deep in the walls of his house — noxious fumes that come and, just as mysteriously, vanish. Luther tries running smoke through the pipes, then a plumber’s snake. He breaks open the Sheetrock in the attic. Finding the cause of this disgusting gas — is it a string of trapped dental floss? A long-ago mistake of his own? Elliot’s shoddy handiwork when he helped add a new bathroom? — becomes as suspenseful and cataclysmic as a whodunit.

Bezos wisely leaves the more enduring and troubling question of Luther’s character — the centerpiece of this chilling novel — unanswered. Luther may in fact have constructed powerful dams to keep his passions in check. But Bezos allows for a far more terrible possibility: that the current of this man’s feelings runs so weak, and so deep underground, that no damming was ever required.

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