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INTRODUCTION

Expecting order and sanity, he had found a world gone awry, the planet tipped. Instead of meteors, airplane
bolts and metal chunks fell from the sky (p. 167).

A Hole in the Universe, by Mary McGarry Morris

Mary McGarry Morris's fifth novel, A Hole in the Universe, presents a world in which fleeting moments, casual decisions, and seemingly insignificant encounters have the power to alter one's life.

Gordon Loomis—his six-and-a-half-foot, three-hundred-and-fifty-pound frame earning him the brand "Loomer" in his awkward youth—returns to his childhood home after serving twenty-five years in prison. His only remaining connections to the outside world are his well-to-do brother, Dennis, his sister-in-law, Lisa, and Delores Dufault, a high school acquaintance who began visiting Gordon in prison, without any encouragement on his part. Before their death, Gordon's parents willed their home to him, the son who had disgraced them. Upon his release, Gordon decides to live there, despite Dennis's protests. But after so many years, the city of Collerton has grown poorer. The old, working-class neighborhood now comprises run-down tenements, squatters, and thriving drug traffic.

Gordon returns to his childhood home because it is the only home he has ever known; he applies for a job stocking shelves at the Nash Street Market because it is the only job he has ever had. Dennis wants more for his brother and is irritated by Gordon's reluctance to move forward. He doesn't understand Gordon's difficulty in reconciling his past with life as it must now be lived. Gordon survived the harshness of prison by adapting to its rigid routine and avoiding conflict. A cautious man, he continues to be unfailingly polite, never demanding, and so guarded that he dares not lose control of even the most minute aspects of daily life. But now the real world presents variables that Gordon is ill-equipped to manage. He rebuffs the blatant advances of Delores, whose emotional availability is overwhelming; he tries to avoid his thirteen-year-old neighbor Jada Fossum, a child so clearly neglected and in need, her hunger is palpable. Gordon simply shrinks from everything the outside world has to offer. He is a free man, but in many ways his home is still a prison. He goes through the motions of day-to-day life, hoping that "while pretending to be a normal man, he might learn how to be one" (p. 29).

Gordon's redeeming quality is that he refuses to make excuses for himself. Nothing can change what he did. Guilt is the necessary part of his debt, the unalterable punishment for his crime. Unfortunately, Gordon's inability to forgive himself affects all his relationships, making him quick to cut people from his life once their flaws or transgressions are revealed. It is only when Gordon has no choice but to ask for help that he finally realizes that he cannot survive alone. Seeking neither relief nor solace, it is his "humbling submission" (p. 374) to the pain of living that finally allows him to accept others.

 

ABOUT MARY MCGARRY MORRIS

Mary McGarry Morris Mary McGarry Morris is the author of Vanished, A Dangerous Woman, Songs in Ordinary Time (nominated for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award), and Fiona Range.

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH MARY MCGARRY MORRIS

Where did the idea for the novel originate? What research was required in terms of understanding Gordon's experience inside and outside of prison?

I was fascinated by the idea of culpability and guilt. How does so ordinary and decent a man as Gordon Loomis become involved in a murder and then how does he live with the consequences? How does he rationalize the wrong? Can he return to any kind of normal living? Beyond the nuts-and-bolts research, I did what a novelist does, I put myself in Gordon Loomis's head and heart.

At the end of the novel, when Gordon finally begins to pull his life together, Dennis's is falling apart. Are we meant to believe that Dennis's character is in part defined by his need to feel superior to his brother or are we simply seeing the underside of his character at that point?

Dennis truly loves his brother, but he is a deeply flawed man. He has spent his life trying to outdistance the shame of his brother's crime. As so often happens in such a situation, the very sin that destroyed one brother's life has propelled the other's to greater heights. The pursuit of success and respectability has become Dennis's primary goals.

Which of your characters were the most difficult to imagine or the hardest for you to understand and, in that, find a voice for them?

None. In order to create and develop vivid characters, I must know them so well that their voices simply come when summoned. Gordon's stoic guardedness, Delores's seductive breeziness, Jada's almost frantic hyperbole are all part of the texture as well as being a vital yet subtle method of telling the story. I find it to be the most effective way of pulling readers into the narrative so that they become engaged enough with the characters that they forget that the author is telling them a story.

Describe your writing process. Has it been the same for all of your novels?

I begin with pen and paper. The first draft is written in longhand, with a very real, almost organic sensation of flow from the inside out. In the beginning, strong characters are more important than having a complete plot in mind. For me the story is always contained in the characters. When the first draft is completed, I type it onto the word processor and, from there, edit and revise so much that, in the end, I never know how many drafts I've gone through. Vanished, my first novel, was completed on a typewriter where an error or revision usually meant hours of retyping.

What does the book's title mean to you?

"A hole in the universe" is the void, that emptiness a person feels when something vital is forever lost or removed from one's existence. First and foremost, of course, is the death of Janine Waters and her unborn child. Then, there is that vital part of Gordon that has been lost, his innocence and worthiness. No excuse, explanation, or absolution could ever change or erase what happened that terrible night when he blundered into the sleeping young woman's bedroom. Because of his actions, both in what he did and then failed to do, lives were destroyed. He will experience the loss of the young pregnant mother in the full and punishing burden of his guilt every day of his life. He does not try to inflict this burden on anyone else, but it is the only honorable life he can have. His guilt fills the gap in his being. In a sense, it gives him heft and substance and the only atonement he can understand or accept. It is the most he allows himself of feelings.

While the novel is primarily Gordon's story, many of the other characters have their own unique trajectory. If you were to choose another character in A Hole in the Universe as the focus of a new novel, which one would it be?

YDelores Dufault or Jada Fossum. Delores—because she is so filled with hope, optimism, and belief in humanity. Her excesses and errors in judgment are part of the ebullience that fuels her through the muck of life. And Jada—because she is tough, resilient, and, like Delores, not afraid to take chances. Jada wants to be happy, wants to be safe. No matter how much neglect and rejection she has endured she refuses to be left behind.

The reader learns bits and pieces about Gordon's crime, but ultimately we only experience what the characters in the novel feel. Why is it important that the reader does not know the precise details of the murder?

Details of the crime emerge gradually and often unbidden through Gordon's consciousness because that is how memory "speaks." I wanted the focus of the novel to be more about Gordon's reentry into freedom than a step-by-step depiction of the murder or his prison experiences.

Your novel Fiona Range is also set in a fictional town named Dearborn and a city called Collerton. What is the significance of using the same setting?

The Dearborn in both Fiona Range and A Hole in the Universe is a very affluent town that borders a larger, poorer city I call Collerton. While both communities are fictional, they have real counterparts in America, places where the stark reality of poverty, hunger, and crime is often only a few minutes drive from the comfort and safety of tree-lined, suburban streets.

What are you working on now?

My next novel is called The Lost Mother. It is about a family that is torn apart during the Great Depression. The story is told primarily through the eyes of eleven-year-old Thomas Talcott, who minds his younger sister, Margaret, while his father works. The children have lost their home and their beautiful mother, and no one will tell them why she left or when she'll return.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What is the significance of Gordon remaining mute about the events that put him in prison? Why does he refuse to ease anyone's mind when he is questioned on the subject?
     
  2. Discuss how you initially reacted to each of the characters and how your perception changed as their flaws and gifts were further revealed.
     
  3. Gordon thinks of Delores: "Her charity was earthy and promiscuous. She had done it not for the girl's sake or his, but for her own. In helping others, she was pleasuring herself" (p. 178). How accurate do you think Gordon's statement is?
     
  4. For Gordon, "It was vital that the few people in his life stay the same, to be who he needed them to be. He felt betrayed" (p. 148). How much of Gordon's powerful reaction to his brother's relationship with Jilly is based on the above statement and how much do you think it is simply an ethical response?
     
  5. Why is Gordon so hard on all the people in his life? What in his history causes him to have little flexibility in his understanding of people's behavior?
     
  6. There are various points in the novel in which each character's trajectory could have taken a different turn. Discuss different moments in the novel in which slight changes could have led to an entirely different result.
     
  7. Could Dennis and Lisa's marriage have survived without Gordon's intervention? Are lies ever acceptable in marriage??
     
  8. When Gordon pondered Delores's affair, he thought, "Acceptance was the greater struggle. Forgiveness was words, an easy chant to numb the sin, until with time the loss no longer really mattered or deserved its raw place in the heart" (p. 275). Why is it so difficult for Gordon to accept others' flaws? What is he saying about forgiveness? Why does he need to maintain that "raw place" in his heart? Are there some actions that are simply not forgivable?
     
  9. Where do you see Gordon, Delores, and Jada five years later?
     
  10. In real life, how would you react to Gordon? Do you think it's possible that you could understand and relate to someone like him, beyond the safety of a book cover?