Tolstoy famously noted that all stories grow from one of two roots: a character’s journey or a stranger’s arrival. In The Edge of Maybe, a new novel by Ericka Lutz, page one finds that proverbial stranger on the doorstep of the story’s protagonist, Kira. But this stranger is the (maybe) daughter of Kira’s husband, Adam, a twenty-year-old one-night-stand gone awry named Amber, and she’s looking for “Dad.” And if that’s not enough to set Kira’s gyroscope in motion, the greasy haired Amber has a small boy in tow, one who happens to be destroying Kira’s beloved frontyard succulent.
In a tidy show of denial and distraction — a constant coping mechanism for this family — Lutz nicely conveys Kira’s discomfort as she stands with her daughter, Polly, and an armload of Whole Foods groceries contemplating the ragamuffins occupying her front stoop. Kira zigzags between taking in the young woman and immediately shifting focus to a crack in the driveway that needs attention. The fact that Amber has walked barefoot all the way from the bus station in January is partnered with Kira’s annoyance that the young boy is snapping off chunks of her precious dendroideum.
With this small but profound literary shove, the nearly-too-perfect Oakland family begins an untidy downward spiral. Each character’s “solutions” to their problems result in still messier issues, those that even their organic eggplant on Acme pain au levain sandwiches can’t fix.
Kira and Adam are mid-life parents, rolling along in a good-enough marriage, quasi-happy to ignore the deeper issues plaguing them both. Adam is a good cook and a bad budgeter, not quite at peace with his coulda-been rockstar past. That rock-n-roll lifestyle brought with it the requisite one-night flings, one of which was Amber’s mother, Sandi, a woman who’d slept with Adam’s entire band. Turns out that Sandi has now booted Amber, deciding it’s Adam’s turn to take responsibility for an overweight screw-up daughter whose problems include drug-dealing and a rap sheet.
Kira’s not-quite-satisfied urges show up in the form of a crush on her young yoga teacher. Ravi singles her out, offers private lessons: “We could do a lot — you’re carrying a lot of tension in your shoulders and hips.” Hungry for a more spiritual existence and enflamed by Adam’s unwillingness to deal with Amber, Kira’s desire erupts in an affair with the hardbodied Ravi. And thus, their tidy lives unravel. Adam retreats to the basement with his good-ol’-days memories and a little stash of dope. Daughter Polly teeters on the razor’s edge of teen angst, trying to get the attention of her parents, who are too enmeshed in their marital squabbles to notice.
That the family’s troubles are completely self-induced is somewhat problematic; too much existential handwringing runs the risk of edging into self-indulgent territory. Lutz, however, doesn’t take herself too seriously, and even allows for the occasional eye-roll when her characters are a wee bit too entranced by the latest nude watsu therapy or gourmet pot-induced suicidal fantasy. They are doing their best to cope, and Lutz treats them with an empathetic hand.
Lutz has authored seven nonfiction books, yet she is equally adept at writing fiction. Her attention to detail is noteworthy. The Edge of Maybe winds through familiar East Bay haunts, from Peet’s Coffee to the pickup scene at Harbin Hot Springs to the barely warmed “I Am Elated” sunflower enchiladas at CafÃ© Gratitude. I had to chuckle at her poking fun at the Berkeley-ish “woo woo boys,” with their tribal tattoos and adopted Eastern names, their “surfer-boy legs sticking out of soy-based cargo shorts.”
As a counterbalance to the tree-posing East Bay populace, there is a refreshing sprinkling of the lock-n-load Elko, Nevada, crowd, with their bacon bits and un-PC talk and “liberal” slot machines. These are Amber’s people, and although she’s more caricature than the other Oakland dwellers, she’s less predictable, and for that we appreciate her greatly. Amber tells it like it is, and, in her own trailer-park ex-con Diet-Pepsi-slurping way, she offers more help to Kira and Adam’s own daughter than they are able to muster, given their preoccupation with their self-perpetuating crises. “Don’t you be a cutter,” Amber says sternly to Polly. “Cutters are rich girls who don’t have enough normal to worry about.”
Several story arcs artfully cross paths in Lutz’s novel. Amber’s questionable paternity nicely parallels Kira’s questionable fidelity and the aftermath of her fling. Adam’s quest to do the right thing by Amber and her family overlays his own daughter’s desire for parental nurturing at the cusp of adolescence.
The differing storylines are reinforced by Lutz’s use of three different points of view — Kira, Adam and Polly — illuminating how people closely entwined under one roof can see things differently. Some of the most lyrical moments of the story are from Kira’s perspective. Here, as she contemplates telling Polly that Amber is very likely Adam’s daughter and her half-sister, Kira ruminates:
That pause before lake ice gave way underfoot; when lips moved toward each other for the first kiss; when the knife stuck on the bread crust before skittering across to slice into an index finger…”
Lutz’s dialogue is at its best in playful exchanges between husband and wife. An uber-Berkeley waitress hands the family their bill and requests they share what they’re grateful for:
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to eat such good food,” Kira said.
Adam said, “I’m grateful for not being asked personal questions or having my daughter put on the spot.”
“Oh, it’s not required!” the waitress left.
“I am Broke,” Adam said, paying the bill.
The Edge of Maybe‘s characters aren’t perfect, and their struggle with “first-world” problems might not garner sympathy from all readers. But Lutz nails what it’s like to be kissed in the dark by a boy when you’re scared and titillated and thirteen. She delivers a marriage that left me rooting for it, regardless of its warts. She credibly lays out the all too human struggles with truth, betrayal and acceptance. And she reminds us that strangers and journeys are what make our stories worth telling.