Norman Ravvin writes exquisite prose. His third novel, The Joyful Child, is a sustained, delicate performance, rhythmically varied and attentive to emotional nuance. It’s the story of Paul, and his relationship with his son, Nick, as told by an unnamed friend of Paul’s. A brief novel, almost a set of linked short stories, the book moves easily back and forth in time, building patterns of imagery while investigating themes of travel and wandering, of fathers and sons.
Ravvin’s precise tonal control keeps the book fascinating; the unexpected stringing-together of odd incidents develops a curious sense of meaning. Nevertheless, the quiet elegance of the structure occasionally seems forced and tends to make the book’s more obvious moments seem even more obvious. For example, when one chapter ends with Nick’s great-grandmother dispensing words of wisdom, the effect is platitudinous. Overall, however, Ravvin’s eye for the unconventional – the way he can build a chapter around a surreal and fruitless search for a missing relative, and then resolve it with seemingly unrelated images of a well-tended garden and a firm handshake – serves to bring out the themes he’s working with.
The Joyful Child
While the book does allow us to see Paul in different ways – narcissist, artist manqué, fundamentally passive – it doesn’t build a case for him as an inherently interesting character. Paul’s background as the son of his father, and as the father of his son, is resonant. We see how much being with Nick means to Paul, who was abandoned by his own father as a boy. Yet the man himself is uninvolving. We note the passivity, the lack of drive that leads to the melancholy conclusion of the book, and the feeling communicated to the reader is one of entropy rather than inevitability: a life running down. The grace of Ravvin’s prose aside, Paul functions more as a symbol than as a character.
If Ravvin’s characters seem flat, there is still a real sense of them being grounded in specific times with specific expectations – for families, for fathers, and for sons. Paradoxically, there’s also an oddly timeless feeling to the book. Nobody seems to use a computer, and when the story mentions cellphones near the end, it feels almost anachronistic. The book is about slow growth and change as much as it is about recurring generational patterns.
The Joyful Child is a complex book that rewards careful examination and re-reading. But in the end, there’s nothing surprising in the novel. Its focus is the journey, not the destination. mRb