A Nuclear Family Comes Apart


A version of this story ran in the September 2012 issue.

The toxic radiation emitted by the Hardings of Houston comes from the fission of a nuclear family. The fission also accounts for the power that Andrew Porter harnesses in his debut novel, In Between Days.

Once the hottest architect in town, Elson Harding has become a doleful lush who tries the patience of the 27-year-old museum curator he has taken up with after the collapse of his 30-year marriage. Cadence, Elson’s ex, is mismatched with the instructor of a business course she took at Rice. The Hardings’ son, Richard, a graduate of Rice, still lives with Cadence, and, despite literary talent and ambition, spends his days waiting tables and his nights hanging out at gay bars. What drives the plot of Porter’s novel is the sudden return, mid-semester of her junior year, of Chloe Harding from venerable (and fictional) Stratham College in Massachusetts. All that her frantic parents know is that Chloe’s involuntary leave has something to do with an Indian boyfriend named Raja Kittappa, and that their daughter has been implicated in unspecified felonious acts. Soon after returning to Houston, Chloe disappears.

Porter, who teaches at Trinity University in San Antonio, moves deftly in and out of the minds of Elson, Cadence, Richard and Chloe. Ashamed and confused over what happened at school, Chloe is reluctant to confide in anyone, and the reader learns only gradually, along with the rest of the family, her complicated secret. A Jamesian examination of character that dances a quadrille with the points of view of four Hardings, the novel sustains the taut suspense of crime fiction.

At the end of the first chapter, driving—under the influence—to Cadence’s house to discuss their daughter’s crisis, Elson becomes disoriented “ . . . and realizes then, with something like panic, with something like fear, that he doesn’t actually know where he is, that he must have made a wrong turn somewhere, that somehow, in this city where’s he’s grown up, this city where he’s lived all his life, he is lost.”

Porter knows his way around Houston, particularly Montrose and downtown. He also knows how to navigate a sentence. Except for Cadence’s recurring sessions with a psychotherapist, manipulated to elicit information for the reader, the prose and pacing are nearly flawless. The title, though, is awkward and unenlightening, since most novels assume that everyone alive is always in transition. However, coming after The Theory of Light & Matter, his 2007 story collection that won the Flannery O’Connor Award, In Between Days confirms that Andrew Porter has arrived.

Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

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