There's something rare in Kate Arnold-Ratliff's debut novel Bright Before Us—some strange, wise blend of compassion and gimlet-eyed insight into human weakness. Her 23-year-old protagonist, Francis, is not particularly sympathetic—he's callow, selfish, cruel to those who care about him, and probably a little bit crazy. Yet somehow, from Francis' floundering attempts to accept the terms of adulthood, Arnold-Ratliff has drawn a beautifully compelling and utterly original novel.
"It has been my particular curse to watch the only two meaningful things in my life fail utterly," Francis tells us. The first, his teaching career: In his early days as a teacher, he'd taken his responsibilities seriously, pleased to help usher his students into adulthood. But all of that changes the day he sees a parent hit her daughter in the face—the day he realizes that children "weren't enigmatic little wonders. They were miniature adults. They were just as bedraggled by their own shitty impediments, their same painful burdens, as their grown counterparts. I was watching them become people, yes—I was watching them become people they someday would not want to be."
So when Francis takes his class on a field trip to the beach to catalog flora and fauna, he's already stopped caring about his work. He's reading the newspaper while his kids patrol the beach—and when the class discovers a dead body, Francis is the one who falls apart. He's soon popping pills before class while parents and administrators circle, lobbying to have him fired. As his mental state deteriorates, so too does his regard for his students. (When one child is called on in class, he observes: "Amber raised her hand and gave the principal that hungry look: pick me, pick me. It took no imagination to see her giving that same look someday to some man.")
Francis' second meaningful thing... well, as always, "this is a song about a girl." Two girls, actually: His wife, Greta, and his longtime crush, Nora. As he attempts to reconcile his feelings about the two very different women, the reader is left to wonder if he's capable of love at all: "I had long worried that I was no one in particular, an absence that negotiated the world not by action but by reaction. That you thought otherwise, seeing in me a quality, an individual texture—that, Nora, is what made me love you most. As though I could look deep inside you and see not you, but a reflection of myself. As though you could tell me, on a daily basis, who I was."
That's not exactly the reasoning of an emotionally whole adult. Francis is a narrator who struggles with limited success against his own flaws; who does, in fact, some very bad things over the course of the book. Yet it's to Arnold-Ratliff's endless credit that the reader is never tempted to just close the book and finish Francis off. His weaknesses are human ones, and anyone honest will cop to similar struggles to balance their worst impulses against their best ones. Francis is, like the students he fears for, a kid who's grown up to be a person he doesn't want to be. And in describing his struggle to become something different, Arnold-Ratliff's turned out one hell of a debut.