A dazzling first novel from Donald Barthelme’s last protégé.
THE LATE DONALD BARTHELME’S most lasting achievement may not be his fiction but the creation and nurturance of what might be called the Houston school: a group of instructors and students drawn to the writing program he helped establish at the University of Houston. That ever-expanding list includes novelist Rosellen Brown and poet Richard Howard, the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant earlier this year, along with younger writers like Padget Powell, Gail Donahue Storey, and Vikram Chandra. The latest addition is Kathleen Cambor, whose recently published first novel, The Book of Mercy (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), is a powerful tale of family pain and rebirth. “I may be the last to come out of that program to have worked with him,” Cambor says.
Cambor, who is 48, fits the Houston school criteria nicely. Besides having studied under Barthelme, she was a big supporter of other local writers: It was she who often critiqued their first drafts and hosted their publication parties. In turn, she found encouragement in the nascent coterie of writers drawn to U of H, everyone from poet Edward Hirsch to novelist Beverly Lowry. Like Chicago native Hirsch and New Yorker Brown, Cambor is also an immigrant. In 1971 she moved to Houston from Pittsburgh, where her Old World parents had little use for writing as a career; she married prominent Houston psychiatrist Glenn Cambor and squeezed her writing in between the raising of two children and three stepchildren. Regionalism is not a priority in the Houston school—place usually takes a back seat to more universal themes—and, indeed, only one third of Cambor’s story is set in Houston. Finally, like many of her colleagues’ work, Cambor’s is more notable for its literary merit than for its blockbuster status: The Book of Mercy spent five weeks on the New York Times’ prestigious “Bear in Mind” list, not the best-seller list.
And it is good. Cambor worked for nine years on this spare but passionate novel, which combines in a powerful narrative her fascination with alchemy and her grandfather’s experience as a firefighter. Through the metaphor of fire, she shows how a family comes to know the transforming power of love. “This is a book in which people fail each other, but not for lack of some deep feeling,” she says. “The possibility of repair and forgiveness exists even if you’ve had a difficult life.”
Cambor’s own reserve almost kept her novel from being published. In a literary version of the Cinderella story, she received a letter in 1991 from an agent at International Creative Management who had read one of her published short stories and wondered if she needed representation. “I said, ‘No, I’m afraid not,’” Cambor recalls. Two years later, however, she wrote the agent to say she would be done with a novel in two months: Was the offer still good? The agent replied that she had been waiting years for that very moment; she sold The Book of Mercy only a few months after receiving the manuscript. “Now I think I can be happy forever,” Cambor thought at the time. But there was more to come: a second printing, a paperback sale, and recently, plenty of time to work on a second novel at the Yaddo writers colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. Clearly, she has no regrets about being the Houston school’s latest bloomer. “Things really do come when they’re supposed to,” she says.