‘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.