The Washington Post Review

Science Fiction and Fantasy

From the turmoil of adolescent sexuality to the global village of the near future.

By Bill Sheehan

Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page BW13

Jack and Jilly

Paul Witcover may not be a household name, but he is a gifted, fiercely original writer whose genre-bending fiction deserves the widest possible attention. Tumbling After (EOS, $24.95) is only his second novel (after 1997's Waking Beauty). A dark, often troubling account of metaphysical mysteries and multiple realities, it is as good as anything that has crossed my desk in months.

The story proceeds along two narrative tracks that echo and illuminate each other in countless ways. The first takes place in the summer of 1977 and concerns Jack and Jilly Doone, 12-year-old twins whose lifelong psychic bond contains a powerful, if nascent, sexual component. The two are spending the summer at the family beach house under the extremely loose supervision of their Uncle Jimmy, creator of "Mutes and Norms," a role-playing game set in a post-apocalyptic future populated by five mutant species representing the powers of the elements (earth, air, water and fire) and of the mind itself.

The second track tales place in the supposedly imaginary universe that "Mutes and Norms" describes. The central figure is a Mute named Kestrel, a winged "Aerie" who embarks on a traditional coming-of-age pilgrimage across a trackless desert known as The Waste. He is accompanied by the four randomly chosen members of his "pentad," one of whom, he is told, is a spy in the employ of the once dominant Norms, who have been at war with the Mutes for generations.

Back in the "real" world, Jack survives a near drowning and awakens with what he believes to be a mutant power of his own: the power to alter the very stuff of reality, initiating crucial changes that fit seamlessly -- and retroactively -- into their surroundings. This "gift" brings with it a sense of increasing foreboding, as Jack comes to believe that a nameless entity has marked him out for destruction. Jack's ensuing paranoia, together with his attempts to understand the nature and source of his wild new power, alter him in fundamental ways, leading to a series of tragic confrontations that are both shocking and inevitable.

Echoes of other writers -- John Crowley, Philip K. Dick and Theodore Sturgeon, to name a few -- reverberate throughout the novel. But Tumbling After is no mere pastiche of free-floating science fiction tropes. On the contrary, Witcover has made something powerful and strange out of familiar materials. The story is dauntingly dense, though satisfying. The prose is clean and precise, lending an aura of understated authority to the entire enterprise. And the disparate narratives, which glance continuously, if elliptically, off each other throughout the book, snap sharply together at the end, lending a sudden, startling coherence to all that has gone before.

On one level, Tumbling After is a thoroughgoing work of the imagination. On another, it is an affecting meditation on the vicissitudes of family life, on the bonds of twinship, on the nature of adolescent sexuality and on the random forces that can alter or destroy our fragile hold on reality. It is a fully realized novel by a significant new voice. I hope it finds the audience it deserves.