In the early pages of Bill Cotter’s sprawling novel “The Parallel Apartments,” we’re introduced to Justine, an Austin, Texas, native in her mid-30s who has lived in New York City half her life. Over time, the reasons for Justine’s departure from her Texas hometown will become clear, as will the details of life with her loutish ex-con boyfriend. After learning that she is pregnant, Justine abruptly decides to return to Austin, and it’s with this almost archetypal setup that the novel takes flight.
Although she is the novel’s central character, Justine is hardly the book’s only major figure. In a series of initially disconnected subplots, readers are introduced to several people living in and around a building known as the Parallel Apartments — this includes Murphy, a troubled young man determined to become a serial killer, and Marcia, who uses an inheritance to start a business involving a robotic gigolo. Flashbacks also outline the circumstances that caused Justine to leave Austin at 17, and even go back to the years before her birth. It’s here, most vividly, that Lou, Justine’s grandfather, emerges as a character — thoroughly flawed, with a penchant for driving in highly inebriated states and a knack for alternately running toward and away from anything resembling redemption.
In the novel’s second half, these disparate characters slowly converge; additionally, the three time frames in which the history of Justine and her family play out begin to yield connections. For a novel that is contemporary in its attitudes, “The Parallel Apartments” has several devices that wouldn’t have been out of place being written 150 years ago, from the revelation of a character’s birthright to a fondness for curiously named supporting characters. (A chicken fighter named “Leghorn” seems a little too precise.) And a wry, sometimes satirical voice often supplies a memorable turn of phrase.
In high school, Justine finds inspiration in the books of Tom Robbins, John Kennedy Toole and Walker Percy; taken together, that seems like an accurate description of the aesthetic at work here. There are utterly wrenching moments in this novel; there are also stretches of offbeat humor. To say whether “The Parallel Apartments” ultimately falls on the side of comedy or tragedy would be giving too much away. This is a novel involving births and deaths, and one that can encompass laugh-out-loud humor and take seriously the trauma brought on by the death of a child. While the array of characters and time lines can be dizzying at first, Cotter’s use of histories familial and cultural ultimately pays off, even as it leaves the aftereffects of their cycles ambiguous.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn. His writing has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Paris Review and elsewhere.