Joe Coomer,
The Loop
(Faber & Faber, 1992;
Scribner, 1999)

If there's one thing that Joe Coomer does very well, it's capturing in words both the strange, unresolved futility of life and the absolute absurdity of it. Like Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God, one of his previous works, The Loop is one of those books where every single person, place and thing has meaning that goes beyond the surface and burrows inside your head until they're a part of you.

The Loop begins with Lyman, a 30-year-old Courtesy Patrol worker, being found by a parrot. And not just any parrot, mind you, but an ancient parrot -- a parrot methuselah, of sorts. Speaking cryptically with phrases like "Shut up!" and "That which hath wings shall tell the tale," the parrot becomes a source of vexation and mystery that opens up Lyman's life in ways he never expected.

Add to the mix a gypsy librarian who moves from library to library in a quest to have distance from her family, and a dog named Floyd who can't actually stand without leaning on something. The book could have easily become absurd, and at times it skates that thin line, but Coomer's deeper meanings start to peek through, even at the most strange of times.

For example, Lyman is an orphan. his parents were killed when he was only three months old, and his life has been a succession of foster homes and temporary placements. Coomer notes, mostly tongue in cheek, that most girls he's slept with have a tendency to sniffle sympathetic tears when he reveals this bit of information. When he tells Fiona offhandedly, she sobs, facilitating Lyman's heaving her over a shoulder and carrying her out of the library to avoid the stares of onlookers. The whole scene is funny, and at first glance seems to be a little anachronistic of Fiona's mostly-tough and independent character. However, later on, we find that Lyman hasn't ever cried about the loss of his parents and inability to find them -- it's almost as if he's allowed the women in his life to do that for him. Fiona's overreaction was a contrast to his UNDERreaction, and the grief thread can be followed through the rest of the book.

Without getting too deep (and sounding like a college essay in the process), The Loop is one of those great books that are both entertaining and thought-provoking, without having that air of unreadability. While some books are good for escaping from reality for a while, The Loop allows you to escape while looking more closely at the everyday prophets in your own life. It's a great mix.

I will say that I was a little disappointed at first by the loose ends that were left loose. It was half-hearted disappointment, though -- not everything in life is tied up in a neat little bow at the end of each chapter, and I don't know why we expect our books to be any different. I wanted Lyman to have some peace, though. I wanted to know where the bird came from, in order to mirror where Lyman came from. As an adoptee myself, I know how it feels open-ended and raw sometimes to just not know, and the way Coomer related the two searches without ever actually spelling it out says volumes about his opinion of the reading audience. (In other words, he doesn't treat us all like myopic kindergarteners -- he lets us figure all this out on our own.)

One other small peeve of note -- for no explainable reason, at the very end of the book (and only for one short chapter), Coomer changes perspective of narration. From a sort of omnicient Lyman's-eye-view to a first-person narrative from Fiona's eyes. I do understand that some of the things Fiona was thinking, she never would have verbalized. It would have felt too "end of the Scooby Doo episode," with all the motives explained away, but I felt like it was kind of a cop-out on Coomer's part. It would have taken longer to explain the motives for her final actions with illustrative action rather than with a narrative, but the change in perspective was jarring. In fact, I'd venture far enough to say that the book would have been fine without it ever having been included. It was just too distracting for me, as a reader, to change eyes like that.

This book may not be for everyone, I'll mention that now. There are some grizzly scenes of things being cleaned up on various highways (Lyman's job is to drive around helping people in need and burying any dead animals that are killed on the road), and it doesn't cater to the short-attention-span crowd. However, if you're looking for something to read that's both meaty and fun, The Loop will definitely give you your money's worth, as well as introducing you to characters that will stay with you for a long, long time.

[ by Elizabeth Badurina ]
Rambles: 4 May 2002

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