Michael T. Fournier. Swing State.
Michael T. Fournier. Swing State. Three Rooms Press.
In his second novel, Swing State, Michael T. Fournier intertwines the stories of a veteran, a bullied boy, and a delinquent girl in a tragic account of life in the economically depressed, fictional town of Armbrister, New Hampshire. Roy, recently returned from Afghanistan, struggles to find a job and reinsert himself into society. Zachariah suffers his peers' daily taunts ever since a fateful accident on the football field embarrasses him in front of the team. Dixon, who lives under the shadow of her mother's abusive boyfriend, copes by harassing her more vulnerable classmates (particularly Zachariah) and setting off explosives in abandoned houses. Swing State follows the lives of the poor and disenfranchised, while Fournier explores what it means to be vulnerable in a world that takes notice of its residents only when they fail.
Fournier's distinctive approach to narration allows no buffer between characters and readers; there is no clear boundary between protagonist and antagonist to guide a readers empathy. As Fournier inhabits each character's mind, the line between villain and victim blurs. Roy's thoughts are filtered through a choppy, deadpan narration that sags under the strain of PTSD and poverty, stoking the reader's sympathies. This same narration however, reveals Roy's prejudices and violent tendencies with eerie indifference. Roy's flashbacks, for example, provide glimpses of his abuse of prisoners during the war: "The opponent, humiliate them.... [W]e think you can do a 'persination of a pig. Think you can do that? Or do we need a broom?" Similarly, Fournier showcases Dixon's brutality through the helpless lens of the third-person narrator in Zachariah's chapters: "[She] half-dragged, half-pushed him around the corner of the store. She kicked him in the butt. He went sprawling, stomach first, into the dirt." Meanwhile, Dixon directly narrates similar abuse at the hands of her stepfather: "He ... took a running kick at me. I could feel all the air leave when his foot hit." The ubiquity of violence in the world of Swing State unsettles the reader's urge to designate clear-cut heroes and perpetrators. Ultimately, Fournier's narration succeeds by humanizing the characters, without shying away from the unsavory parts of their natures.
By the end, no consolation remains. In the world Swing State represents--impoverished industrial towns in the rural Northeast--no form of protection exists for those pushed to the brink by poverty and violence. By juxtaposing disadvantages faced by his characters (no money to leave town, limited access to jobs) with the transient pleasure they find in pool, beer, and drugs, Fournier acknowledges their vulnerability without turning them into objects of pity. Though it offers no solution to the problems its characters face, the book challenges the popular assumption that people invite their own misfortunes solely through lack of initiative or indulgence in vice, and invites readers to probe the question of how such misfortunes can be prevented in the first place.