Small-town Minnesota holds all the clues in Moorhead State University alumna Lori Ostlund's nearly perfect debut novel, "After the Parade" (newly issued in paperback). Protagonist Aaron Englund grows up in the fictional town of Mortonville (a combo of Morton and Ortonville?), near Moorhead. He's a shy, polite, intelligent, acutely observant boy who is bullied by his peers (not coincidentally, in his teens, he comes to understand that he's gay), abused by his police officer father and abandoned by his dreamy, depressed mother at age 12. Little Aaron is an imaginatively but realistically drawn child, a rarity in modern American fiction.
Grown-up Aaron is drifting into midlife as we meet him leaving his longtime older lover, Walter. It's not entirely clear why Aaron is leaving Walter, a good man who loves him. He finds Walter too smug and parental, too emotionally suffocating. "Once people thought they knew you, it was almost impossible to change their minds, which meant that it was almost impossible to change yourself," Aaron observes.
True as that may be, it's hard not to notice that as he has been left by someone, so he leaves someone.
Aaron does not know who he is, and he needs to find out. He drives away from Walter and their comfortable New Mexico home to start a new life in San Francisco, where he rents a shabby apartment and takes a job as an ESL teacher. His classroom time with his students makes for the book's best scenes. They ask embarrassing, hilarious, profound questions, and they are lucky to have him as the person answering them, or trying to.
But the answer to who Aaron is and how he got that way does not lie in San Francisco. It lies in Minnesota, where Aaron went from confused child to confused adult, thanks to his mother's disappearance and the rough years that followed. Why did she leave? Where did she go? With the help of a private detective, Aaron finds her.
Strange things happen to this quiet man, even beyond his mother's abandonment. His father is killed when he falls off a parade float and hits his head. When his mother has a breakdown and he is shuttled off to his fanatically religious aunt and uncle's house, the kindness of the former eases the zealotry of the latter. He bonds with and learns from a nasty, brilliant dwarf named Clarence and a morbidly obese cook named Bernice.
It's ironic that this introverted, cautious, confused, almost colorless man is such a compelling character. His descent into midlife depression is intricately drawn and sadly believable, and the book's end, with its sense of calm over closure, is perfect.
Ostlund is a little too fond of startlement, in plot and in character, a sort of strident realism that sometimes almost skids into magical realism, but she keeps you reading, because, good Lord, what will happen to our Aaron next?
Ostlund has won a passel of prizes for fiction featuring gay characters, but "After the Parade" is not "gay fiction." It is the story of an American man who must come to terms with his childhood. This sad, brilliant book is for all of us.
Its Minnesota moments make it especially compelling for those of us who live here, especially if we grew up in small towns, where nothing, but everything, happened to us.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.
After the Parade
By: Lori Ostlund.
Publisher: Scribner, 340 pages, $17.
Event: In conversation with Melanie Hoffert, 7 p.m. Aug. 25, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.