Cannonball  by  Joseph McElroy  Dzanc Books, 2013  Review by  Jason DeYoung

by Joseph McElroy
Dzanc Books, 2013

Review by Jason DeYoung

“How do we speak in the midst of what we’re ignorant of?” the narrator of Cannonball asks at the beginning of the novel, as he watches his friend walk the length of a diving board jutting over an Iraqi palace pool, moments before the pool explodes. His answer: “Nothing to it, let me tell you. What we’re made for on this good earth. Plotting an arc of motions that plotted me.” Seeing through the conspiracy and untangling the complex weave of machinations which veil the moment of these words is the plot of Cannonball, which Joseph McElroy calls “my most uneasy-feeling or darkest book.” Indeed Cannonball is dark, depicting familial betrayal, racism, and the treachery of creating government propaganda.

Opening in media res, Cannonball resets its narrative thrust within the first chapter to its narrator’s high school days, to a two-dive spectacle at a community pool in an unnamed Southern California city. Umo, a 300-plus-pound (possibly illegal) immigrant from Mongolia, executes those dives. The first is the eponymous cannonball with its predicable outcome; the second one is more elegant, honestly astonishing, near-miraculous, as Zach, the narrator, says: Umo’s “surplus” entered the water with “no real splash… but a perfectly small spurt fountaining a foot high at most and a muffled thud like when you fire a smooth stone end over end out into Otay Lake over the head of an outboard troller and it slips in with scarcely a gulp.” Seeing potential in Umo’s dive, Zach invites the “giant waif” to meet his father, a coach for a local swimming affiliate, who has outsized ambitions of coaching a swimmer to the Olympics.

Roughly broken into three parts, Cannonball’s first third is a coming-of-age tale between these two friends. Zach used to be a diver before an injury left an “angry track” on his chest.  His father, a single-minded man, abrades his son for “retiring” from diving, criticizes him for not know how to compete. The complexity of the father/son relationship is further complicated by Zach’s (near?) incestuous bond with his sister. Their father catches them several times during the course of the novel, never in true intercourse, but in situations suggesting more, an intimacy Zach calls “heroic.”

Zach’s friendship with Umo is a revelation, however. Zach’s middle-class family life has cloistered him, while Umo, the younger of the two, is more experienced in the world, coming from Mongolia, via Mexico, to California without parental guidance or protection. Zach views him as a kind of window onto something larger, saying he “expanded my narrow world of family”  and seems a miracle because “he had taken over his life at his age.”  But because he works as a currier of sorts, sans driver’s license, running trips down to Baja, Zach’s family sees Umo as an “alien upstart,” whose Baja trips are on the same “level as cockfighting and human sacrifice.”  In truth, they really know nothing about him, their talk is degrading conjecture, and the first third of the book in particular depicts the racism toward the local immigrant population.  Umo and others foreigners are spoken of as nefarious, and as if their lives matter little.

The second part of the novel takes up Zach’s time in the military, where his enlistment lands him a cushy assignment as a Photography Specialist, a position that might have been influenced by his father’s connections. But his photos are more of the brutally uncompromising W.-Eugene-Smith variety and less the flag-and-tank patriotism his superiors want. Assigned to the secret Scroll Down Mission, Zach is taken to a palace belonging to the former Iraqi dictator, where he is meant to photograph the discovery of the Scrolls, a first-century “eye-to-ear” interview with Jesus, portraying the historical figure as more “economist” than Messiah, more compelled to sermonize “win-win” profits than prophesizing peace. In short, an “American” Jesus. 

The second movement of the novel also returns to the opening scene, in which Zach stands nonplused at the edge of the Iraqi palace pool, watching as his friend Umo, who appears from “out of nowhere,” step onto the diving board. Straining credulity, yet somehow not breaking it (because after all the novel is full of near miracles and strange events) at the moment of Umo’s dive the pool explodes, and its water drains into an ancient sewer system. Within the chaos and carnage—there were other people in the pool—Zach’s camera is confiscated by a guard. In lieu of fighting for his camera back, Zach plunges through the hole Umo was sucked through. There, beneath the pool, Umo is nowhere to be found, instead a Chaplain “turned underwater photographer,” whom Zach had met briefly during training, lies crushed under debris.  From this Chaplain, Zach steals a scrap of the Scrolls.

At this point, the Dickensian threads between the characters show. Indeed there is a lot which seems creditable to Dickens’ influence in this novel, including the primary villain Storm Nosworthy (a name I so want to be an anagram), and the multitude of coincidences, for which McElroy’s stealthy hand hides expertly in his constrictor-tight plot and uncovers slowly. As the novel progresses into its third movement, it’s revealed that indeed the Scrolls are fake, the brainchild of Zach’s father and Nosworthy, a high-level DC bureaucrat with the “ear of the Vice President.” Zach had been set up to photograph an inside job, an attack on the Scrolls made to look like the work of terrorists, meant to bolster nationwide morale for the war, and justify American competitive consumerism. Faced with threats from Nosworthy to reveal the intimacy he shares with his sister, a revelation that will ruin her promising future, Zach chooses not to turn whistleblower on the entire conspiracy and instead takes a second tour of duty.

Working hand-in-glove with the motifs of discovery and knowledge is McElroy’s unique prose overlay, Cannonball’s most distinguishing feature. For the uninitiated, it needs to be said, Joseph McElroy’s prose is challenging. Often knotted by frequent syntactical dislocations and blooming with fractal-like subordinate structures, his writing is rebellious in technique and inspiring in possibility, designed to resist simplicity to achieve psychological density. Two or three passes are frequently needed to see all the fibers and wires leading to the pyro he has packed in. In a recent interview, McElroy described his style:

I think about the sentence as drawn between a need to get somewhere and end and then not to end if it can find its continuing shape in what comes next . . . Intricate the passage and the sentence are my unit, pretty much, and can be sometimes several thoughts enfolding one another, passing through one another like neutrons or my reciprocal fortunate memories.

Eschewing hierarchical order of fact, these innovative sentences abstain from elevating you to the level of writer, a position perhaps of safety, but drop you into the confusion of the narrator’s mind. As Zach plots his “arc of motions”—its meaning, cause, consequence—we are there too. This search for knowledge grows a thicket of simultaneity and confusion within the narrative. Take for instance this passage:

My idea had been to bring Umo to East Hill. Make a splash with the coach, his search for regional or national attention. It might not cross my dad’s mind that we were after it together, whatever it was. Yet in some more interesting thought that I hadn’t learned to follow up, I was soon to be in another “it” with my surprising and sometimes embarrassing sister, who had described unforgettably Umo’s entry into the water one summer night in 2002. I beside her shot on film or tried to his dive but she just as she’d been interrupted passing on to me a weird family yet neighborhood question Corona’s Italian wife Bea had put to her as they had biked home the night before through rain divided and gathered and caressed by trees now tonight saw him pull off a two-and-a-half at a public pool under the lights that went out totally for a moment, a breaker fluke that went unexplained, as he left the board plunging us if not my camera into nowhere and came back to reveal him just passing the crest of the as yet undisclosed dive now crunched into tuck—as I became aware of the old woman of a year ago with the spotted skin and the veins materialized now as if by the power glitch itself beside me seeming to say hello with a word: for Umo’s dive was so busy a somersaulting that when he just came out of it he’s someone unaware of you headed somewhere else gone forever, my sister said, or executed, it came to me she had murmured to herself or me, I thought if anything a sucked-downward tongue or perfect loss.

In his excellent essay on Joseph McElroy’s novels, titled “Fathoming the Fields,” William S. Wilson states that “McElroy requires his readers to look at events alertly, and to question the theory or system of values which justify elevating one detail over another detail because of relevance to a single center or personal interest.” In the passage above, another novelist might have teased out the most relevant fact—the question Bea asks Zach’s sister, something that becomes important later—but that’s not how McElroy’s fiction operates. The narrative is subsumed in details—both the trivial and the significant—to portray something like “blind spots,” as Wilson puts it, or ignorance, something McElroy callsa dark space you fall into.” Cannonball is marked by dark spaces, and the theme of blindness permeates its pages including frequent references to the Biblical story of Jesus healing the blind man, Zach’s constant self-questioning of his purpose (or, as he puts it, his “job”) and, of course, faith, that utmost blinding of concepts, which is featured in one of the novel’s most moving passages, where Zach descends through the hold in the bottom of the pool, into the darkness, where the conspiracy begins to unravel:

I jumped.

And no time to check my plunge or midair a gap someone else forms into named unknowns:

for Time—so little between fall and water—all but ignored me, slow-on-the-uptake, a pale panel came up to skim me and raw studs wrenched askew and steel I-beam end and four- by- eight ply split torqued velocity at you between instants of a life you could call failed yet met—by me, my jump, my fall, my shadow of uncanniness, its reeling plane, sparks pouring upward through me, my bond waiting someplace, my job after all, which you may still stumble on in this other than they stick you with….

It is the liminal that Zach explores—even as a swimmer, he prefers the backstroke. Over the course of the novel, we see him grow from a rather clueless young man to a veteran possessed with critical insights. Yet these insights do not assuage his obsession with understanding his “job.” Spurred by the collusion in “discovering” the Scrolls—that “weapon of critical instruction”—and his own involvement (by way of his father) in their creation leads Zach to the leap of mind that “wherever you are things go on behind your back and the real job of your life comes in pieces wherever you think you’re going, to be at the war or opposing it.”  No, perhaps not satisfying, but hard-won and honest wisdom.

The reward of reading McElroy is not in his conclusions anyway, which are often left inconclusive (in fact, Cannonball ends with a question), but in the connections made while reading a prose that thinks along with the reader.  The reward is in spending time with an author who has encyclopedic depth of interest and recall; of living through a novel with such a plenitude of patterns and themes weaved masterfully into an aesthetic whole. Yes, McElroy might be wearing his politics proudly in Cannonball, but they are a humane politics. In the last few pages of the novel, Zach saves a little Iraqi boy from drowning.  He calls what they do a “two-person dive in reverse.” That’s kind of what Cannonball is: a two-person dive, reader and author, with author as guide, finding the plot of motions that could have plotted us, refreshing and loosing the waters around our history to make sure it’s not written exclusively by the victors.


Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia.  His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in REAL: Regarding Arts & Literature, Corium Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, Best American Mysteries 2012, and elsewhere.  He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq.