Carter Clay is a smart, tightly woven book that takes on some big philosophical conundrums. Which came first: the chicken or the egg? is actually one of them. And good writers, such as the talented Elizabeth Evans, know that it isn’t their job to provide answers. They mean merely to ask the questions which thereby force us to consider the possibilities.
For example, what does it mean to be smart?
Carter Clay is a homeless Vietnam vet, of average intelligence, struggling to conquer alcoholism. After a chain of haphazard events has him crash his van into a family parked alongside the road trying to get its bearings, Carter undergoes a religious conversion that urges him to step in for the husband and father he took from paleontologist Katherine Milhause and her precocious twelve-year-old daughter Jersey Alitz, two of the novel’s four uncommonly intelligent characters. The other two are Katherine’s husband, Dr. Joe Alitz, who is killed in the accident, and a menacing vagrant named Finis Pruitt, masquerading as Carter’s friend and Vietnam comrade. Assuming the role of Private Rear End, Finis carries around three books—The Birth of Tragedy, A Christmas Carol, and The Analects of Confucius.
When Dr. Joe discovers he is lost during a family trip to Florida to visit his wife’s mother, M.B., he consults a map, which “he understood even before opening …that its scale was entirely wrong for the present problem,” but which he nonetheless uses because “Joe is a man who prefers to solve his own problems.” The narrator asks: “How many miles is it to M. B.’s retirement condo from the roadside where Joe stands? Suppose Joe could calculate the distance. Would it help him find his way back?”
“No,” the narrator answers authoritatively. “Knowledge of distance is no substitute for direction.”
And so begins one of the novel’s central themes: What bearing does intelligence have on one’s good or bad fortune? After all, one might argue that Joe’s reliance on intellect is to blame for his death. And when Katherine’s gifted scientific mind is wiped clean by the same accident, which leaves her with brain damage, Jersey uses her own budding brilliance to search for ways of helping her mother recover to her former glory. Only M.B., Katherine’s mother and reluctant caretaker after the accident, and the novel’s title character Carter Clay seem satisfied with leaving the “new” Katherine just as she is.
Soon Carter begins pushing himself into Katherine and Jersey’s lives and eventually comes to the decision that he should marry Katherine. But when Jersey criticizes him for not being good enough for her mother, for not being smart, M.B. says, “As if being smart ever did your mom a lick of good!”
Another question posed: What difference does it matter if a person is “good” or “bad”?
Joe Alitz, we’re told, is “basically a good man,” and we’re to assume that Katherine and Jersey are good as well. Are they, then, deserving of their fate? What about Carter Clay? Born to an abusive father and a suicidal mother, Carter and his sister Cheryl Lynn seem somehow to have become decent people. At his best, Carter is dutiful, loyal, and earnest, if he is courted by calamity.
But most important, Carter Clay is faithful. In need of redemption, he perseveres in believing that God will forgive him for killing Joe and destroying Katherine and Jersey’s lives; that God will help him quit drinking and somehow convince Jersey to abandon her scientific though atheist views so that with God’s power, she can cast away the wheelchair she is bound to and walk again.
No book can be summed up in a few paragraphs, least of all this one. Suffice it to say that Carter Clay is about being lost and being found. It’s about being snatched up out one life and trying to escape another. It’s about choosing whom you’ll obey: God or yourself, and what the consequences will be. Clichéd as it sounds, it’s about the search for truth. Is there a God? And if so, are we subject to some plan already mapped out for us? Or do we determine our own fate? Though the dilemma itself is hackneyed, Elizabeth Evans rises to the challenge of pushing her story well beyond what’s expected. I couldn’t predict what would happen next, and I can always see around corners in stories. I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes keeping the old noodle fit. A thoroughly enjoyable, thought-provoking read.