That we do not, or cannot, know everything of those we suppose we know, or that we might be variations of ourselves when around different people, are the essential building blocks of Jim Powell’s Things We Nearly Knew (Picador, 2018). Set in an unnamed small American town, Powell’s similarly unnamed narrator owns a bar out at the very periphery of the place: the back-drop hub to a whole plethora of gossip and amateur sleuthing on the comings and goings, by the locals, of their fellow denizens. Powell explores his themes via a handful of these characters, of various shades of depth or passings-by. His writing, as befitting the vocation of his main narrator character, is conversational in tone, easy to read, dotted with bar psychology, though nothing too profound threatens to endanger the flow of the read.
That said, Powell does manage to touch on small moments such as is the everydayness of most bar-goers’ lives: a little on politics, small diversions into loss, excursions into the meanings of things. If this is a conscious effort to relate the life of the bar to the style of the writing, then Powell has achieved this well. Not having yet read any of his other works, this reflection shall need to be returned to in due course. There is a limit to how many characters an author can reasonably expect to maintain within any given piece, and so necessarily this author only details a few (there are nods to how the bar has its flow of other trade, but mostly we see the bar as sparsely populated).
The catalyst for the narrator’s reflections and the locals’ changing lives takes place one winter when Arlene, a late thirties-something mystery woman, enters the bar. She’s looking for a man called Jack, though, as we’re told, there are plenty of those around, potentially. Arlene has no surname to go on and very little other information. No-one knows why she wants to find him because she won’t tell, and neither does she say anything to the locals about herself. They are curious to find out about her. Arlene becomes a sporadic regular and sets the narrative in motion.
Along the way, we meet other locals: Davy, who we’re told is more intelligent than his chosen work positions suggest he is, who has some anger issues, who has his secrets, and who very soon starts a relationship with Arlene; Nelson, a failed politician, a corporate crook who likes the sound of his own voice; Mike, a quiet and unassuming man who Powell does not choose to colour in in any great detail. The bar owner-narrator’s wife, Marcie, is a rational, level-headed woman, depicted as someone who encapsulates the comfortable knowledge of a thirty year marriage, who supports and is supported, but who also has her secrets. To this mix, Powell adds Franky Albertino: Franky is the Fonz character, come back to town after thirty years away, still playing the slippery wide-boy, still not totally trusted, but still exerting the same gravitational pull that he always did. In Powell’s writing here, practically everyone has their history, their skeletons in the closet, and as Arlene suggests early on (whilst she, Davy, the bar owner and his wife go on a short break to the bleak scenes of Coney Island out of season), everyone presents a different version of themselves according to who they’re with.
Before long we’re embroiled in the gossip of the handful of locals and bar owners who variously ask one another (or the reader asks of the writer) who Arlene is, where she’s from, why she’s looking for someone called Jack and who he is, why Franky’s back in town and what he wants, why Franky wants to take over the abandoned mansion next to the bar, who the reclusive Mr Hammond who purportedly lives or lived there is, what might be happening in the slow-spiralling relationship between Davy and Arlene, who the money was stolen by, what happened to Marcie thirty years ago, what the cause of sadness for Marcie and her husband is, and so on. In writing a review, it’s difficult not to accidentally create spoilers but, suffice is to say, progeny and identity and versions of presentations of characters are strongly alluded to. What was particularly pleasing to read in Powell’s writing was that he does not always go the whole way in his explanations: he leaves the reader to piece things together, giving enough clues so that the risk of too much ambiguity is reduced.
It isn’t clear where the bar owner-narrator’s town is in America, but it takes him, Marcie, Davy and Arlene the best part of a day to drive from there to Coney Island on the coast. In some respects it doesn’t matter that the author has chosen not to specify a location: this could be an everyday story of any group of locals anywhere. Powell has just chosen to set his story in Anyplace, America. He mostly succeeds in this, referencing American phraseology and cultural practices. However, the pedantic reviewer will often root out the odd slip-up. Towards the end of the book, Franky sends the narrator a cheque: Powell writes it this way (‘cheque’; in British English, rather than the American ‘check’). It is a small detail but something that causes the moment of a temporary stepping out of the fictive flow. It is a small criticism, but one that this reader feels is worth expressing.
How does an author end any given novel? That is, at what point does the wind-down begin? In some ways, endings could be seen to be even more important than beginnings. It isn’t clear at what stage Powell starts to wind down towards the final pages, and this is testament to his writing, but there is a feel in this reader’s perception that some final scenes are not given such due attention as earlier ones. In the narrator’s discussions with another bartender, in a town some fifty miles away, there is the feel of a stilted wrapping up taking place: the other bartender is depicted as distracted or uncaring (the anti-bartender, as it were, in the previously written thinking that there is a certain pastoral duty to undertake in the role), and the narrator quizzes him, receiving an unlikely staccato flow of responses. The suspicion is that such an exchange is disingenuous to the reality of people who have only just met like this, irrespective of their shared vocation.
These small criticisms aside, Powell offers a novel that flows easily with sub-plots and a little subtlety. Some characters are a little thin in the fleshing out, but other relationships depicted are graceful, caring, curious or open to debate: an interwoven gossiping, though without the negative connotation of the word. Ultimately, what we can come away with is that Things We Nearly Knew gently questions us on the various versions of ourselves.