Thursday, May 24, 2007

Catching Your Breath Underwater

You can barely stop to catch your breath when reading Alex Flinn's Breathing Underwater

It's not just her pacing that keeps you turning the pages. It's the deft way that she interweaves scenes from the main character's past and present, as well as offers multiple perspectives into his character, that draws you underwater, deeper into the story and into the character's dilemma.

Flinn grabs her readers from the start with present-tense scenes of sixteen-year-old Nick Andreas as he enters the juvenile justice system, faces the judge, and finds himself sentenced to community service. He's also required to attend anger-management classes with Mario and keep a journal to better understand himself and the violent way that he mistreated Caitlin, his former girlfriend.

Right from the opening scene Flinn provides strong clues that Nick poses a danger:
I've never been in a courthouse before. But then, I've never been in such deep shit before, either. The metal detector screams when I walk through, and a security woman tries to check my pockets. I pull away.

"These what you want?" I dangle my keys an inch from her nose, getting in her face. She backs off, scowling. I throw them into her yellow plastic basket and walk through again.
This guy is trouble... and Flinn shows him not only in trouble but causing more trouble before he even makes it to the courtroom at the start of the story.

Second, Flinn includes telling details from Nick's journal entries. It's through his journal that Flinn shares the back-story leading up to the present story, with Nick describing his infatuation with Caitlin, exploring their relationship, trying to understand his anger, his controlling behavior, his jealousy, his self-esteem issues.

The journal entries reveal a more vulnerable side of Nick and allow us as readers to feel sympathy for him as he lets his guard down. With each entry, we begin to move past Nick's anger and discover the emotional wound that serves as the source of his current crisis:
When we were kids, Tom and I used to tell people we were twins. I wished it was true. My father would go on the warpath, and I'd head for Tom's. Did his family wonder why I came over so often? I tried not to care.
Third, Flinn shifts the focus (just slightly) to Nick's relationship with his father, a man who abuses him emotionally and physically. In this journal entry you can feel the tension between father and son:
The sound of ice cubes greeted me. In my father's house, ice cubes are air-raid sirens that send me diving for cover. I searched for an exit. There was none. Usually, I missed happy hour, my father's version of dinner at home, but he was early, I was late, and worlds collided. My father swirled his glass. I tried to look casual--impossible--and walked past him.
Fourth, Flinn develops Nick's new relationship with Mario, the leader of the anger-management class, as a way of revealing the first hints of his tentative growth toward a new understanding of himself:
After class, I gather my stuff, hanging back so I'm the last to go. When everyone's gone, I approach Mario. The fluorescent lights buzz overhead.
"That day on the bridge, when I slapped Caitlin..."
"Yeah?" He turns to give me his full attention.
"I was afraid, okay? I was afraid she'd leave me."
Mario nods. "I know you were." He starts to reach his hand out, then takes it back when he sees my face. "It's okay to be afraid, Nick."
And Flinn develops, as well, his new relationships with others in the class, especially Leo, who serves as a foil to show how much Nick has changed since he was with Caitlin... and who lets him finally see and understand how badly he had mistreated her:
At five after, I'm still waiting. I remember when we discussed lateness in class. I'm annoyed with Leo but not furious. Would I be madder at Cat? Losing it, maybe? No. Not really.
No time to consider. Leo's black Trans Am cruises to a stop. When I get in, he says, "Sorry we're late. Someone got held up at the drugstore." He turns to the guilty party, Neysa, sitting beside him. "That's your story, right?"
"Leo..." she says.
"Leo..." he imitates, gunning the motor.
"Why are you acting this way in front of--"
"What way?" Leo demands over the tires' squeal. "You're the problem, not me."
"I'm sorry," Neysa examines the floor mat.
"I'm sorry," Leo mocks. "I'm sorry I'm always late. I'm sorry I'm a lying slut. I'm sorry I--"
"It's okay," I tell Neysa. "I don't think it matters if we're late." Leo, I ignore. Why is he acting like this? Why is it so familiar?
And, last, Flinn shows Nick finally coming to terms with his feelings for Caitlin, feelings so strong that by the end of the book they prompt him to violate the court's restraining order to speak to her so that he can finally apologize for his earlier behavior:
"Who's this?"
"It's me." Then, quickly at her intake of breath, "Don't worry. I'm not trying to get you to take me back."
"Will you stop calling me?" she says, over my words. "Please. I could tell--"
"Go ahead. Call the police. Have your boyfriend amputate my face. I deserve it. I deserve it. Just listen a sec, okay?"
I take her silence as agreement. Out front, someone's mowing the lawn, and I say, "Look, I know you couldn't like me anymore, not after what I did. I know that now. I just..." Why is this so hard? "I'm just sorry. I thought I meant it before, but I didn't know. I mean, it's like apologizing for stepping on someone's foot. You say you're sorry, but you don't really understand how bad you hurt them."
As you can see, Flinn juggles these multiple scenes and shifting perspectives in dramatic ways, offering different angles into the story and generating mounting suspense in the reader's mind in the form of the all-important question: how will all of these different perspectives connect and resolve themselves?

If you haven't taken a look at Breathing Underwater, try to find a copy... and study Flinn's work closely for how to craft a multi-layered character as well as a fast-paced, satisfying story.

For more information about Alex Flinn, visit her website:

P.S. - Wordswimmer will be taking a break until June 10th in search of new sources of inspiration. You're invited to leave comments to this and other posts, and I'll post them on my return. Thanks for stopping by... and keep swimming!

1 comment:

Jack said...

Bruce, you've captured a lot of emotional tension in those excerpts, and I know I'll enjoy this story. The dialog is just right, not too overwrought, just moving, four-wheel drive. Bring back lots of stories from your trip.