Stefan Merrill Block’s “The Storm at the Door”

Family dramas, like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina* or We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oats, always intrigue me. I like the psychological aspect, the development of character, which culminates in how do these people interact? What is the relationship between each person thrown into this family unit? How do individuals form themselves out of these groups? And how does two people meeting over fifty years ago, what are now your grandparents, affect you, today? These are the questions that Stefan Merrill Block considered in his novel The Storm at the Door

It seems he is just as obsessed with these questions of family, and he chooses an easy-to-research subject: his own family saga. Not easy-to-research in the sense that there is a ton of information out there on the Merrill family (he focuses on his mother’s side, the “interesting” one), but easy in the sense that he has probably been thinking about these questions his whole life. Definition of self depends upon where you comes from and Block has attempted to define himself knowing his uncanny resemblance to his grandfather Frederick, the crazy one who spent some time in a mental hospital. Block examines how this time affected his grandmother, Katherine, and his mother, Susie, who was only thirteen at the time.

Of course, this brief description does not do justice to the complicated personae featured in this story, where everyone seems just a little bit crazy and deserving of a trip to the psych ward. The doctor in charge of the illustrious Mayflower Home (real-life McLean Hospital) seems especially deserving of some solitary confinement at times. All this to draw attention to the fuzzy lines between what is crazy and what is not, though we try our hardest to define it concretely. Block is an expert at the minute details, getting every word just right and delving deep into the psychological and emotional portraits of each character. He attempts to explain why each character might act in the way that they do, although at the end of the day we are left with just people, who are always unknowable to a certain extent, whether they are your grandparents, the stranger on the bus, or even yourself. In this case, the deep probing comes out of the author’s own obvious curiosity about his grandparents, and ultimately what their story means for his own story. 

Block also does extremely well with the place and time of the novel, just after WWII, and inserts his characters into their settings seamlessly, switching back and forth from the family summer cottage to the Mayflower mental hospital to his grandmother’s struggles outside of Boston to maintain the family while her husband is locked up in the loony bin. He travels across time, too, focusing on when his Katherine and Frederick first met, the ups and downs of their married life, all the way to the present and Block’s own relationship to his family. Throughout these changes, Block makes the time and place come alive, through research not only of the factual nature, but calling upon a lifetime of observation of how people work and what makes them tick, demonstrating his skillful way with words that is a benefit for any writer, at any time.

Besides Frederick, the Mayflower Home is home to famous characters like poet Robert Lowell, as the McLean Hospital was in real life. Block does a great job including Lowell as a character, along with others of his own invention, including Professor Shlomi Schultz, a once-respected linguistics professor who now obsesses over the language of persons and things, a language of the universe that speaks only to him. This was one of my favorite characters, and I’m sure Block enjoyed some of the synesthesia-esque moments in which he got to imagine what sound a crow’s feather might emit (Bleee), or the true name of Schultz’s long-dead wife Irit (Ookalay). Block again illustrates crazy as perceived from the outside, while examining it from an interior angle as well, noting the elements that lead to his stay at Mayflower, a path any of us might be apt to slip down.

The one aspect of the novel that gave me a bit of trouble: the flow. In the wise words of Flannery O’Connor, “The novelist makes his statements by selection, and if he is any good, he selects every word for a reason, every detail for a reason, every incident for a reason, and arranges them in a certain time-sequence for a reason.” Block seems highly focused on perfecting the first part of O’Connor’s quote, with quite brilliant results, yet the overall organization of the novel seems a little haphazard. The novel is broken up into sections, which are broken down into chapters, which are broken down further into sections delineated with that little three-dot thing (does this have a name?). With every chapter or section within the chapter, we have a change in which character we’re following, usually a temporal change as well, with the result that the novel feels choppy at times. I think a slight rearrangement of the writing would result in more time spent with each character, without feeling constantly pulled out of one storyline and dropped  into another, then another. Block also sometimes refers to his grandfather as Frederick while talking about the past, then will refer to him as “my grandfather” in the same section, again pulling the reader into two conflicting times and stories.  However, I look forward to more of Block’s work, which I think will improve with a step back to look at the bigger picture, a slightly calmer approach to writing perhaps.

*Ed. note: the author originally referred to Anna Karenina as the work of Vladimir Nabokov.

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