In his craft manual, Fiction Writer’s Workshop, Josip Novakovich laments that “these days many writers withdraw their gazes from city architecture and country life, and as they do, their fictional worlds diminish. […] Setting has fallen out of fashion at the expense of character and action. Perhaps this trend has to do with our not being a society of walkers. Big writers used to be big walkers […] Their cities speak out from them.” If I had to pick one recent writer who pushes back against this anti-setting trend, it would be Atticus Lish. His debut, Preparation for the Next Life, and his most recent novel, The War for Gloria, are the books of a big walker. In Preparation for the Next Life, he walked the reader through New York, and in The War for Gloria, we run, sprint, punch, and crash our way into Boston and the surrounding suburbs.
The War for Gloria follows the lives of teenage Corey Goltz and his single mother, Gloria. But we do not so much begin with Corey and Gloria as we do with the bigger fundamental elements of their lives — loneliness, creativity, instability — props set out on a stage with the backdrop and actors coming slowly into view. The book opens with a narrative distance so great that we feel like we are hovering over the characters, at once privy to great swaths of their lives and too far removed to actually touch them. Lish pulls the reader past a flashing sequence of memories and details until we arrive with a hard stop in the fall of 2011. The effect is something akin to Joe Brainard’s I Remember: a lush slideshow of moments, some huge, some small, but each of them treated with exacting care.
In 2011, the story begins to pivot around an axis of decay. Gloria is diagnosed with ALS, a progressive nervous system disease that feels at first like a “spring awakening” but soon becomes outright degeneration. As Gloria’s body becomes more and more out of her control, Corey’s life spins out as well. The two of them are forced to rely on Corey’s father, Leonard, a security guard at MIT and a self-taught would-be physicist cut very much from the same cloth as Will Hunting of Good Will Hunting. It is Leonard Agoglia’s unsettling and abstruse presence that drives much of the narrative motion of The War for Gloria. As Gloria’s health fails and Corey’s life crumbles (he drops out of school to work construction in order to provide for Gloria only to lose his construction job when he has to leave the worksite early to care for Gloria), Leonard provides an undeniably enigmatic undertow to what might otherwise have become simply a sad tale of hard luck lives. Corey is equally as drawn to his father as he is repulsed by him. Corey hates the way that Leonard talks about women and his beloved mother, but he is attracted inexorably to Leonard’s confidence, his “calm and blissful self-involvement.” And soon, in his attempts to grow closer to his father, Corey crosses paths with yet another self-involved chauvinist. Adrian is Corey’s age, but he is “outside the struggle of life like the Buddha in the flower. He pursued self-strengthening without anxiety, feeling only entrancement.” Adrian has big muscles, A’s in math, and an appetite for Nietzsche.
As Corey’s mother’s body begins to fail her utterly, he spends more and more time with the bursting egos and muscled manias of Leonard and Adrian. Not since Pete Dexter’s Paris Trout have I met a character as absolutely deranged yet precisely controlled as Leonard Agoglia. There is that same pall that hangs over Paris Trout, that same inevitable wreckage to come, and that same mesmeric absence of action. Nothing happens, although you are sure that something is happening. Leonard doesn’t actually do anything horrific until he does. Or does he?
As a portrait of a mother and son living and struggling and loving one another at the margins of working-class life in the mid-2000s, The War for Gloria is a masterpiece. As an examination of masculinity and fatherhood, it is exquisite. As a novel of bodies — Corey throws himself headlong into mixed martial arts for most of the middle of the novel — it is breathtaking. In these MMA-infused sections, I heard wonderful echoes of Leonard Gardner’s Fat City and Bennett Miller’s movie Foxcatcher. One feels, upon reading The War for Gloria, that Lish has not so much written this novel as he has sculpted it with steady hands. It is a muscular novel, leaping with virtuosic omniscience to whatever vantage point Lish needs us to see things from. Lish trusts his reader, and you feel the strength of that trust until suddenly, in the final section of the book, you do not. In the last 60 pages, Lish seems to let go of the expertly held reins, and the novel moves from a beautifully restrained and exacting portrait of a family into a garish murder mystery. Suddenly, in a rush of action and plot twists, Leonard and Adrian contort from darkly fascinating egomaniacs into outright homicidal maniacs. The result is unsatisfying, but the book overall is still one of the most hauntingly dynamic novels I have read in quite a while.
The War for Gloria
By Atticus Lish
Knopf Publishing Group
Published September 7, 2021