‘Kind of gritty,’ was the first thought that registered after several pages of Geoffrey Becker’s Hot Springs. The opening line of the prologue sets the stinging tone: “Bernice was ten when her mother walked around the block naked.” Like the first dip into the searing mineral soup for which the book is named, the first pages of Hot Springs shock and lure. Like much of the best contemporary fiction, Hot Springs is rhythmic, musical in its use of language, but the rhythm is initially staccato. “Just north of Truth or Consequences, Landis heard the unmistakable bang of metal punching through metal deep inside the engine.” The sense of desolation, of the harsh edges of unreliable metal failing in the middle of nowhere, emerges immediately from that sentence. The onomatopoetic “bang” and “punching” jolt the reader out of the lull produced by gazing too long at the soothing aqua and pastel cover. If this novel is a dream, it is the plunge down the rabbit hole rather than the sleepy, flowing fantasy of Shakespeare.
The syncopation of the novel’s language echoes the unreliable shifts of the protagonist’s mind. Abandoned in her teen years by an unpredictable artist mother, Bernice is prone to bouts of erratic behavior. In an attempt to establish long-elusive domestic stability, Bernice decides to reclaim – kidnap – the child she relinquished to adoptive parents at birth. As Bernice and the infatuated Landis flee Colorado Springs with Emily, the reader is pulled along into the tense and uncertain world of Bernice’s mind.
A broken down car in a “last resort” town; a kidnapped child with a high fever; an unstable relationship between a drifter and a woman whose reasons for taking the child are never clearly stated – these factors twist the cords of tension, filling the early pages of Hot Springs with a sense of dread.
Landis knocked, entered the bathroom, and found Bernice staring into the mirror over the sink. “I’ve ruined everything,” she said. ‘I’m an unfit mother.”
“Shhh. Nothing’s done that can’t be undone.”
“It isn’t? Do you know what you are saying? Are you even in the same movie as me? Because mine is a bad gangster one, and it ends in a hail of bullets.”
This is Bernice, caught between her impulsive plan to save the daughter she bore from conservative Christian parents who are “brain-washing her,” and the sense that she, like her mother, is incapable of raising a child. Bernice appears to have a deep resentment toward the religious life of Emily’s adoptive parents. “They bought my daughter from me because they couldn’t have one of their own, and now they are killing her mind, one day at a time. If there is a God, I think it’s pretty clear that he did not mean for these people to have children.” Bernice not only resents Emily’s religious upbringing, she is outright hostile toward the child’s parroting of Christian tenets.
The reader who prefers clean psychology and a linear explanation of the actions of characters will be disappointed in Hot Springs. Becker’s novel is true to the erratic mentality of his protagonist. Bernice and Emily drop Landis at a bus stop so that he can return to Colorado Springs to tidy up loose ends; Bernice decides that he has abandoned them. She and her friend Gillian take Emily on an inexplicable day trip into Mexico. Contacting her estranged father is one of the few actions by Bernice that seems to tie into her need for a home. Yet, even this move has the feel of a random ricochet of a pinball against a bumper.
As Bernice bounces from place to place, landing eventually in her childhood home, we retrieve glimpses of her relationships with her mother and with her mother’s lover. Gradually, the fragments begin to coalesce, and the initial shock of Hot Springs becomes first bearable then healing.
Meanwhile, Landis’ return to Colorado Springs is imbued with the aimlessness of his drifter personality. “He enjoyed public transportation. He liked how it was this system that was always there, always in motion – man-made, certainly, but even so, more like a tide or a wind — to which you could attach yourself for the price of a ticket and magically get shot out someplace entirely different.” A 42-year old sound engineer who lives in a trailer park, Landis is not goal driven. He had accumulated “catalogs from Pottery Barn and Banana Republic that only proved to him that those people had no idea who he was or where he lived.” Landis is emotionally stable, but irresolute. Other people make his decisions.
While Bernice — though erratic — is decisive, Landis will continue drifting sedately through space until bumped into by another object. Without the propulsion of Bernice, he wanders: from his trailer, to her apartment, to a game of pool with an AWOL soldier, to a party with a bartender/dental assistant.
It is the connection with Robin, a bartender with more than her own share of emotional dysfunction, that connects Landis and thus Bernice to Tessa and David Harding, Emily’s adoptive parents. This link is necessary to join the storylines of the two families, yet smacks somewhat of deus ex machina. I found it difficult to suspend disbelief long enough to accept that, in a city the size of Colorado Springs, Landis would hook up with, and confide in, the one woman who could connect him to the Hardings.
Tied to Bernice through Emily, Tessa Harding is Bernice’s antithesis. Her façade is perfect: wife, mother, pillar of the church, married to a successful business owner. She lives in the ideal suburban home, dresses conservatively and appropriately. Yet, where Bernice, though severely flawed, is entirely herself, Tessa belongs to other people. Like many women, she has shaped her life to fit the mold others have created. “When she was with David, she thought one way, by herself, another. He was a cheating bastard – she understood this. But he was her bastard. She’d promised God, she’d promised Jesus, she’d promised her parents, she’d promised herself. Her marriage wasn’t just some part of her life, her marriage was her life.”
Once the characters cease rocketing about the country and settle into a common location, the novel settles thematically. As one grows used to the emotional temperature of Hot Springs the need for the initial shock and sense of disjointedness becomes apparent. As the main characters come together geographically, their motivations and actions deepen and coalesce; it is as though each of them requires the others for completeness.
Ultimately, Hot Springs is a beautifully crafted novel with a tightly woven, yet unconventional storyline. Literary novels are commonly referred to as “character driven” rather than the more “plot driven” style of commercial fiction. In Hot Springs the characters shape and propel the plot, yet eventually, that plot allows for the full development of the characters themselves.