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[500] The Coming Storm – Paul Russell

” If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that the unfortunate thing about life is that everything’s mixed. There’s no absolute good and there’s no absolute evil. There’s just a lot of confusion. ” (IV, p.117)

The Coming Storm tells the story of four interconnected lives, and is set within the claustrophobic world of a traditional boys’ prep school in upstate New York. The intricate narratives, told from the alternating perspective of four characters—Louis Tremper, the headmaster; his wife, Claire Tremper; Tracy Parker, the newly hired 25-year-old English teacher; and Noath Lathrop III, a 15-year-old student struggling with his own sexuality—are both elegant and eloquent in style.

But with that thought, Louis was the one skating on treacherously thin ice. Without another glance in that dangerous direction, he headed back for the safety of solid ground. He refused, these days, to live dangerously—if, indeed, he ever had. (XIII, p.246)

The novel is a complicated one that exposes the closely held secrets of the human heart. Russell tackles the delicate, and politically inflammable, issue of pedophilia, as he traces, in a non-stereotypical manner, the complexities of a sexual relationship between Tracy and Noah. Between them there exists an invisible but undeniable connection, and outside the classroom, in clandestine meetings, their socially forbidden relationship gathers both depth and focus.

Listening to Tracy’s litany of misery. [Louis] found himself secretly disappointed in this young man who, having dared make of his own errant dreaming a reality, now grew so quickly frightened of the beautiful disaster he had created for himself. Such love as this, tragic, criminal, impossible, a dream meant only to be dreamed and never, never to be lived . . . (XVII, p.327)

Though no one is more upset about betraying Noah’s trust than Tracy himself, and Noah wants for what happened to happen, their affair alarms and ruffles Louis Tremper, a repressed homosexual with a love for German opera. He has long resorted to a safe life that chooses morality over sensuality. He makes attempt to a pure friendship with Tracy and his former mentor. This is why, at the beginning of the novel, which proceeds in a natural arc of pertinent biographical information, Louis seems unrevealed, sequestered, and hemmed in. He is to me, by far, the most interesting character in terms of complexity of feelings. There exists a part of Louis’s self that is even impenetrable to Claire, who attributes her husband’s aloofness to his unfinished dissertation back in graduate school. With no knowledge of Louis’s secret affection for men, when confided in by Tracy, she adopts a milder view to the teacher-student affair.

Life, meaningless life, was at times fraught with fear symmetries. (XVII, p.338)

As Tracy and Noah’s relationship becomes known to Louis, and the school is threatened to be on the cusp of a scandal, past histories begin to unravel, including the notorious history of what happened with Arthur Branson and Jack Emmerich, the former headmaster. That affair was seamlessly covered up but it ruined both Arthur and the headmaster’s lives, as well as Louis’s. Louis stepped in to stop the relationship, but turned his back on Arthur when he declared his homosexuality. Forty years later, as history repeats itself, Louis turns his back on Tracy for the same reason—for he is wallowed in his own homophobia.

All but Noah are left pondering their regrets and mistakes. Louis feels once again he has failed the person in the situation who needs protecting most, Noah. Russell is adept at elucidating the emotional desert that comes from denying passion, from being dishonest with one’s feelings. I enjoy the ease with which Russell reveals the past of his characters to fully depict their psyches. This book is an intense scrutiny of humanity we all possess and the power of desire.

371 pp. St. Martin Press. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

One Response

  1. […] [500] The Coming Storm – Paul Russell […]

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