Gulf Coast Gothic
by Diana Anhalt
The Floodmakers by Houstonian Myléne Dressler, a vivid account of a family wracked by unresolved conflicts, age-old resentments, personal interests, and a struggle for control, is as intense, intimate, and immediate as theater-in-the-round.
When Harry Buelle agrees to spend the weekend with his eccentric parents at their vacation home on the Texas Gulf coast, the purpose of his visit is to convince his cantankerous 81-year-old father, Dennis (Dee) Buelle, the venerable master of American Southern theater, to follow his doctor’s orders. But Harry’s younger sister, Sarah, and her boy-toy husband, Paul, drive down from Austin to join them, and the anticipated low-key reunion evolves instead into a vicious showdown.
If Dressler’s succinct, thoughtful work comes closer, in both structure and content, to a play than a novel, that is no accident. Two protagonists, Harry and his father, are playwrights; two others, Sarah and Paul, are filmmakers. Consequently, The Floodmakers is rife with dramatic allusions and stage language. Like the drama of Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, it’s capable of provoking emotion strong enough to leave you numb.
As in traditional theater, the structure is fairly unified. The story unfolds within a 24-hour period and is staged, almost exclusively, in a Gulf Coast beach house with occasional flashbacks to a New York City apartment. (Harry, the narrator, segues back and forth between the past and the present, and between his life in New York and the Gulf Coast family gathering.) Dressler works with a small cast, and each actor plays a decisive role in the drama’s resolution.
Thirty-six-year-old Harry characterizes himself as “a natural born social dweeb.” He is an uninspired, gay playwright writing experimental theater, which his father describes as “People standing around half naked with their hands up waiting for random stage directions to fall from the ceiling.” Harry lives on the proceeds of his trust fund and is preyed upon by lovers who are attracted by his father’s reputation. “No one looks at you with eyes like that,” he writes of his most recent lover, “unless they think they can get to something through you, unless they think you point the way to a pot of gold, even believed the gold was already dripping through you like sap.”
His sister Sarah shares his sentiment: “Being the child of a white haired southern icon is like floating face up in a punch bowl….Everyone wants to dip in.” Sarah should know. A victim of epilepsy since childhood, she has worked as an installation artist, sculptor, tattoo designer, art gallery owner, and specialty leather consultant. In her current incarnation she is a filmmaker. Assertive and vindictive, she has recently married the least appropriate man she could find, a man with ulterior motives. Twenty-one-year old Paul—shallow and easily manipulated—wants to become a playwright like his celebrated father-in-law and is willing to do anything to achieve that end. The ostensible purpose of their visit is to complete a documentary film about Dee.
Dee and his second wife Jean have developed a theatrical flair for hogging stage-center, but with age and deteriorating health they seem to be spending more time in the wings. Buelle is patronizing and sardonic, downright nasty at times, but in possession of a keen intellect, wry humor and disarming manner. According to Harry, he could “[morph] from a sly fox into a living saint the minute the lens cap popped off.” While endowed with a brilliant capacity for producing heart-wrenching drama, Dee is emotionally numb where his own family is concerned. During one dramatically charged episode, he tells his children of a casual encounter on the beach with a naked young man on a star kite: I never really knew, until that moment, until that very moment, that in spite of everything I’ve tried, everything I’ve gone ahead and set up, I wasn’t really such a wise parent. Because I hadn’t made my children ebullient… Then I thought, Now why does this boy seem so much nicer than my children?Jean is by far the more sensitive of the two. A former golf pro who is strong, intelligent, and “carefully ladylike,” she raised Harry and Sarah from childhood and played a conciliatory role in the relationship between Dee and his children. Thus, it is no coincidence that confrontation inevitably takes place in her absence.
Two “odd birds” round out the dramatis personae. One is the young man with the kite; the other is an honest to goodness bird, a booby that crashed into the patio glass and broke a wing. When Harry arrives, the bird is ensconced in a box in his father’s study, and Dee’s concern with the bird’s well-being far outweighs his interest in his own family. For him, the booby’s arrival is suffused with meaning: It blew in “thinking we might be a harbor of some kind. A kind of rookery. A safe haven.”
(The irony of that statement—and a good many others—will not be lost on the reader.)
The Texas Gulf is a living thing, constant, palpable, and—like the emotional storm in Dressler’s novel—flood-making. While the Gulf may not figure as a character in its own right, it’s always there in the background, intruding on Harry’s memory and wedded to his narration:
On some days the Gulf was so clear and warm the water circled us in a huge green disk. On others it was brown, heavy with sand, the waves snapping down like turtle’s beaks.In addition to employing stage techniques, Dressler ingeniously evokes the sense of a play within a play within a play. She sets this up early in the novel with Dee’s account of the impoverished child—thinly disguised as himself—sent out during the height of the Depression, armed with rifle and aged hunting dog, in search of dinner. When the dog dives into the water pursuing the boy’s target, a teal, he disappears. The boy thinks him dead, but sometime later the half-drowned dog reappears with a red-fish clutched between his teeth. Upon retrieving the fish and slicing open its white belly, out slithers the slippery teal.
Just as she does with the story of the teal, the fish, and the dog, Dressler presents us with a series of dramatic sequences: Harry’s first experimental play, Sarah’s staged confrontation with Dee, and her version of her father captured on film—one within the other within the other, hidden from view—like stacked Russian dolls.
Little, in fact, is stated outright. Events are skillfully implied or foreshadowed through dialogue or Harry’s narrative and carefully prepare us for the inevitable conclusion. Only once, toward the end, does Dressler undermine her credibility and the novel’s carefully wrought structure, by introducing a melodramatic and highly improbable revelation.
A native of the Hague and a former ballet dancer, Dressler is the author of two well received earlier novels. Her first, The Medusa Tree, deals with a pregnant young ballet dancer and her relationship with an elderly lesbian couple during the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies. The Deadwood Beetle tells the story of a lonely, aging entomologist, son of a Dutch Nazi sympathizer, living in New York, and his infatuation with an antique shop owner.
While superficially, The Floodmakers may appear strangely at odds with Dressler’s previous work, all three novels share more than just a fascination with the family and human relationships in general. Each demonstrates the author’s concern with character development, structure, and the use of language.
The book’s ending confirms what we have already learned about human nature and highlights The Floodmakers’ structural similarity with the dramatic form. Dee has the last word, as he invariably does throughout the novel. He addresses his audience—his wife, son Harry, and us: “Listen, chickadees, listen to those waves. It’s the sound you hear when they bring you out from behind the curtain.” Thus, as in the theater, this thoughtful, provocative, beautifully wrought novel closes, most appropriately, with a well-deserved round of applause.
Diana Anhalt is a free-lance writer and poet based in Mexico City. She is the author of A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965 (Anchor Books).