In Swing State, his new novel set in rural New England, Michael Fournier presents three characters, each struggling to overcome unfortunate familial and social situations. Fournier gives Roy, Dixon, and Zachariah distinct voices, and, through their shifting points of view, he weaves a bleak tale. Characters endure abuse and neglect as they try to escape their economic circumstances. In the words of Dixon, “Everyone’s trying to get away but there’s no place to go.”
Roy, a Purple Heart war veteran, has difficulty returning to Armbrister and learning to “be useful.” He spends his days looking for a job and regaining strength in his wounded leg. At night he hustles pool players to earn enough money for ramen. Overwhelmed by PTSD, Roy manages to communicate in quick, choppy phrases, sometimes imagining himself back in Afghanistan: “Any loud noise, on the ground. Incoming. No time to think. Get down. Grenades, mortars, guns.” Roy’s trauma prevents him from “be[ing] in the now.”
Teenage Dixon responds to her stepfather’s physical abuse by bullying others and stealing, hoping to scavenge enough money to one day leave Armbrister. Naïve and experimenting with sex, drugs, and alcohol, Dixon’s youthful arrogance betrays an unrealistic view of her abilities and opportunities. Dixon’s chapters consist of documenting her daily life into a stolen tape recorder. For example, she describes an encounter of extortion in the high school lunchroom: “I sat down with them and said hey, I hope you guys can help me out. My mom needs some medicine. She’s really sick. And they knew I was kidding but they gave me the money anyway.” Fournier creates sympathy for Dixon who, at times, will do almost anything to avoid going home.
Middle-schooler Zachariah escapes into a fantasy world by writing game shows. He remains hopeful that “everyone in Armbrister would know his story: son of a single millworker finds Hollywood success.” Zachariah’s voice, although the most conventional of the three, comes vividly alive within his notebook. Creating a secret identity, Zachariah writes, “‘Welcome back to Love Balloon! I’m your host, Zack Fox.’ A panning shot of the live studio audience, cheering wildly.” He imagines a successful life “wearing a microphone, in a pinstripe suit and smiling.” Zachariah seeks refuge from Dixon’s bullying and the drunken abuse he receives from his father.
Family violence and its results become Fournier’s main concern. He explores the maltreatment that Dixon and Zachariah experience, trapped within violent households. For Roy, Armbrister brings back memories of his mother’s neglect during childhood, when he became his Auntie Blake’s “charity case.” Fournier’s gift for creating complex characters with few resources and little opportunity leaves us with deeper insight into the lives of the most disenfranchised.
At first, Fournier’s writing style proved strenuous. I had to read the first three chapters more than once to become acclimated with his expression of each character’s voice. However, once I adjusted to this distinctive writing technique, it became easy and enjoyable to follow the interweaving plot and themes. Fournier’s writing style provides fictionalized, albeit very real, socioeconomic insights. The title Swing State may imply political meaning, but the novel does not outwardly rely on a political message at all. Perhaps most impressive, Fournier artfully and cleverly creates idiosyncratic messages through each character’s voice. In Roy’s bleak tale, Fournier successfully explains the imperfect country that war heroes come home to, and how this destroys their worth. He heart-wrenchingly exposes the bullying that Zachariah experiences, which ultimately leads to travesty. Fournier takes a stance against bullying–nothing good comes from it–without the neatness or simplicity often used to combat it. Finally, as Fournier describes Dixon’s domestic abuse and her subsequent behavior, we understand how children become adversely shaped by a slipshod upbringing. Fournier structures these stories to engage serious political questions in order to create human interest and highlight the ethics of everyday life in America.
The end of Swing State offers little hope, and proves Roy’s statement that “some people just aren’t cut out for a better life.” Fournier thematically presents his concerns for society throughout the novel; readers who want a glimpse into the reality of America’s desolate towns will empathize with these troubled New Englanders.
Celine Ridgway is a junior at Penn State University earning her degree in English and French and minoring in Linguistics and International Studies. She hopes to enter the publishing world one day and believes that writing literary reviews will help her do so. She resides in Philadelphia.