After the Sucker Punch
by Lorraine Devon Wilke
Perceptions can be tricky animals, especially when filtered secondhand, even more so when they involve those closest to us. What happens when we find out that what we thought others thought—of us—is way off base? That actually the reflections they’d been silently entertaining along the way were rather negative? The kicker: what if that person was our parent?
Tessa Curzio’s situation goes one step further in that she discovers her father’s dismal judgments about her after he has already passed away and she can no longer ask him about it. In fact, After the Sucker Punch opens with Tessa reading his previously-journaled words reaching out to slap her with a hurt as fresh as the grave the family had lowered him into just hours before. It’s a sucker punch that she knows not only re-writes the past, but also alters the future she is at that very moment moving into.
Knowing the novel’s premise, I was slightly apprehensive about my own relationship with Tessa. Would she be someone who deflects responsibility and whinges a lot about what is done to her? This wasn’t an impression I’d already formed of Lorraine Devon Wilke’s protagonist, more a concern based on real-life individuals who tend to blame parents for everything that goes wrong in their lives. It was a nice, thick book with one of the most well-written blurbs I’d ever read. I really wanted to enjoy it.
Guess what? I loved it. And, as goes the dual affection most parents feel for their children, I also liked it. Devon Wilke fills the story with pieces of a logophile’s dream: crinkly handwriting, tragedy porn—and the use of soundtrack as a verb are some that highlight along the way how the words interact with each other as well as those who utter and listen to them. Tessa is fast on her feet, sometimes too fast, which leads her on occasion to speak out of turn or too soon for what she really feels, but this adds to the novel’s depth and honesty because the author presents our lead as she truly is.
Their brother Duncan was a highly successful product liability attorney who’d made a name and several million in a case involving a child’s death caused by a drug later recalled by the FDA. He had become somewhat of a celebrity and certainly an expert, garnering a pulpit style that often edged toward high-pitched pontification. There was talk of politics and much consensus that he was a bold and righteous crusader. Tessa thought he might just be an ambitious prick but odds were that was sour grapes. Duncan’s financial and general life success stirred bona fide envy in her, as did his inexplicably close relationship with a father who seemed far less interested in her.
She isn’t completely honest or perfectly perceptive, though. Frankly, Tessa is somewhat of a mess. Not entirely, and not all her emotional chaos is visible, not even to herself. As the year moves forward and she assesses her life and where it is going, she also begins to untangle the web of her inner being as well as her relationships with family, partner, friends and career. Once part of a band, Tessa seems to reach out for the sort of stability those days provided, though with each knot she picks free, she slowly begins contemplating what stability really means.
This sense of stability manifests itself in many different ways, some of which we as readers could certainly relate to as Tessa begins a downward spiral of self-doubt. When her auntie, a nun and counselor unfazed by sexuality and her niece’s lapsed Catholic status (and opinions), makes contact and wants to get together, Tessa feels conflicted and practices avoidance:
Aunt Joanne. She had called repeatedly, concerned that they hadn’t talked before they both left Chicago, but so far Tessa had managed to return the calls when she guessed her aunt would be occupied, trading messages without the actual burden of conversation.
Some of the conversations she does engage in lead to snarls in communication, expertly laid out with Devon Wilke’s dialogue. She argues with her sister Michaela, over the latter’s reluctance to ship their father’s multiple journals to her sister, who feels she needs to read them all in order to get a better grip on who her father was and what else he thought of her. There is a breakdown in the relationship with her partner David, the recipient of her sometime unrealistic expectations—“I wanted you to want to read [the journal]”—and who struggles to understand what she is going through.
Devon Wilke’s aptitude for shining light on human behaviors and what motives, conscious and not, often lie behind them, is stunning in its capacity, lyrical presentation and raw reality. It’s not often the latter two of this triad pair together, certainly not well at least, but Devon Wilke does it while avoiding the pitfall of a bitter sarcasm so consistent it becomes a turnoff. Instead, she captures the strength and fragility of the human heart, teaming it with a character readers feel they could be a friend to because the duration of the relationship—for us, the length of the novel—benefits all quarters and not just Tessa’s.
While the entire work is filled with examples of the author’s outstanding abilities to create dialogue and utilize it to tell her story, one set, between Tessa and Michaela, I found to be the most nourishing, for where it leads them, even when it doesn’t point to perfection. Moreover, the third-person narrative doesn’t take Tessa’s side and simply present Micky as the bad guy. Real life is much more complicated than that and Devon Wilke clearly knows it, as she presents both sides in conversations and—the true test—readers can see valid points from the two corners.
It is perhaps unsurprising that as a musician herself, Devon Wilke acts as conduit for Tessa to pour herself into song, and at story’s end “Tessa’s Song (My Search For You)” captures so much of the nuance contained within the experiences Tessa undergoes and that we follow, having experienced many of the emotions as she. Events are different, naturally, but we all have hearts capable of being broken and spend our lives protecting them from such an eventuality.
Available online with a link provided, Tessa’s words are equally strong and vulnerable, and Devon Wilke’s vocal and instrumental arrangement captures so perfectly the rise and fall of sensitivity in the telling of Tessa’s journey in a manner most often best understood by the heart and audio sensibilities.
So elusive, I wonder if you ever figured it out?
How your silence always made me feel a little loud
So convinced if I sang and danced and jumped up and down
You would see me, just me, and maybe be a little proud
It is a recognition that registers, stirring listeners’ own instinct for healing, a powerful resonance for the courageous and often frighteningly difficult steps toward honesty within oneself, and the requisite changes, or decision to remain, that need to be addressed. The song is strong out of the gate—much as Tessa might have been had she began the conversation with her father—the guitar strumming forcefully, with demonstrated strength. As we move through the stanzas, there are glimpses of vulnerability– in the words, certainly, but also with technique: always made me feel a little loud or jumped up and down are part of I phrases that tend for us humans not to come easy and require, surprisingly, sustained support, here demonstrated via the companionship of backing vocals.
Tessa presents in the song as she does in After the Sucker Punch; she is clearly a complicated character, at times confused, and even reader perceptions of her may alternate as they witness her struggle. This is not necessarily a negative, for Tessa, like us, learns more about who she is as the story carries on.
Who she is also appears in song, in its various forms, as an elongated you credits the person her father is or her statement that “we squandered the time we had” both admits her own culpability and insists upon responsibility for other parties, too. She also acknowledges the individual she is as well as that she is in some ways like her father, the trick to doing both of these being able to carry it out sans indictment of the self while also accepting responsibility. It’s not an endeavor for the meek of heart, and friends like Kate could provide support if Tessa accepts it and both don the term friendship in all its ugly glory. That is, truths must be revealed, and friends remain so despite the presence of flaws. Tessa wants to know how her long-term friend can do all this and Kate answers, “Because I was there. I was a witness to your life, Tessa.”
After the Sucker Punch is Tessa’s story, one she can only retrieve with the aid of others whose contributions she will either receive or reject. It is also a portrait of father/daughter relationships and all their attendant baggage, including the need to define oneself within that dyad without further input from the one whose assessment opened the door. Funny, poignant, angry, loving, insightful, momentous, like families themselves, After the Sucker Punch is a story of acceptance from an author readers will want to return to again and again.
A copy of After the Sucker Punch was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.
Author, photographer, singer/songwriter Lorraine Devon Wilke brings the sum total of her creative experience to all her work, including her compelling contemporary fiction. Pulling from every chapter of her eclectic background, she creates characters and plots that are both unique and recognizable, with dialogue that jumps off the page. Additionally, her book covers are designed with her own photography, and her debut novel, After the Sucker Punch, includes a free download of one of her recorded songs.
A longtime contributor to The Huffington Post, Devon Wilke’s trademark “sass and sensibility” infuses her writing with candor, provocative themes, and, whenever possible, lots of laughter. Whether exploring issues of family, faith, love, or tragedy, her stories always embrace an elemental mix of heart and soul.
Currently working on her third novel, both After the Sucker Punch and Hysterical Love are available in print and ebook via Amazon and various other sites. Her extensive photography collection can be viewed and purchased at Fine Art America, she keeps readers updated on her “adventures in publishing” at After the Sucker Punch, and her more topical essays can be found at The Huffington Post or at her blog, Rock + Paper + Music. On the music front, she continues to write and record whenever she can, and has recently been cast in new rock musical set to debut in San Diego, California in early 2017.
Stay tuned for my review of Hysterical Love!