"Olympus, Texas," Stacey Swann's debut — a family saga set in the small town of its title — embraces any opportunity for confrontation. Inside the columned house of the Briscoe clan, Peter and June grapple with the arrival of their youngest son, March, who moved away after sleeping with Vera, his brother Hap's wife.
March's role as the family antagonist is complicated by a diagnosis of "intermittent explosive disorder," a condition that fuels violent behavior he cannot recall in its aftermath. March's relationship with his two full siblings, Hap and Thea, is strained by these "explosive" episodes; his half-siblings, twins Artie and Arlo, are more forgiving.
March's return creates enough gossip to reverberate through Olympus, but Swann is quick to pile on additional crises: Artie's boyfriend's family has a sour history with the Briscoes. June appears to be contemplating an affair.
The Briscoe family traffics in loud, often incredible gestures; the reader senses that Swann is having great fun with some of the scenes, even when they are heartbreaking for the characters. Hap encounters his wife being physically intimate with March inside a massive gingerbread house at a Christmas festival. When Vera teases March about his possibly being her child's father, Swann is teasing her readers, too. This makes it all the more jarring when Artie, goaded by her twin, shoots a figure that turns out to be her own boyfriend, adding a layer of grief to a novel overrun with the consequences of infidelity.
Swann never loses control of the myriad connections and betrayals among the Briscoes and their neighbors. The direct, confrontational nature of nearly all the dialogue is surprising; the Briscoes and the Briscoe-adjacent seem equally comfortable saying — often shouting — what they mean. The family's arguments are full of exposition and philosophizing (and violence, in the case of March and Hap).
" 'You thought you married a man who would always forgive you, no matter what?' " Hap asks Vera. Vera, later, to March: " 'You'll just keep believing the lies you tell yourself." The unspoken meditations Swann gives her characters are often far more powerful, as when Thea reflects that her mother "looked at her father as if he had poisoned the land they lived on."
Swann's interest in the process of forgiveness drives much of the story. Some of her characters, such as Vera, see the willingness to forgive as a kind of weakness; others search in vain to be forgiven. In the wake of tragedy, the Briscoe children are drawn to Peter and June's house as a kind of reflex, even though they find tumult instead of refuge. Shifting among the perspectives of many "Olympians," Swann writes an action-filled, devastating tale of homecoming.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy's writing has appeared/is forthcoming in One Story, Electric Literature, Lenny Letter, Narrative, the Millions, and elsewhere.
By: Stacey Swann.
Publisher: Doubleday, 336 pages, $26.95.