Take What You Need, Idra Novey's most recent novel, is a stunning piece of work. Consisting of three complex, beautifully drawn characters, the novel is about caretaking relationships. Jean is a divorced woman who begins to create sculptured towers after she's laid off from an office job, Elliot is the shiftless, unemployed nineteen-year-old kid on whom she depends for help with the physically demanding tasks her art requires, and Leah is the daughter of the man to whom Jean was once married. In the novel's present, Leah is grown-up, and with her husband and young child, she is driving through the Allegheny mountains to get to Jean's house. The first-person narration shifts in alternate chapters between Leah and Jean, but Leah's chapters are the only ones in a present tense voice, making the time shifts easy to follow.
The distant past is the period when Jean was Leah's stepmother. They were close, and so when Jean suddenly moved out, Leah struggled with the loss of the only mother she had known. Now, as an adult living in Long Island City, she feels she is still "fumbling…ambling motherless into motherhood" (5). Add to this compelling emotional brew the contemporary rural setting of Pennsylvania, where Leah grew up and Jean still lives, a place where unemployment is high, opportunities are lacking, and hatred of foreigners thrives. But even after she is laid off, Jean doesn't leave, and Elliott, her neighbor next door, is unable to leave because an arrest record makes him unemployable.
When the town turns the water off at the house where Elliott lives with his mother and younger sister, his mother comes over to Jean's to ask if her son can fill a few water jugs at their outdoor spigot. The first time Elliott walks into Jean's living room, he sees the steel forms she's welded, forms she calls Manglements, and she can feel his interest. When she shows him how to buff a rough corner smooth, forgetting to warn him that the too-short cord has no play in it, there is an accident. The grinder flies out of her hands and into her thigh, creating a gash that requires stitches.
But the nearest emergency room is an hour's drive over the mountains. Jean is so weakened from shock and loss of blood, driving herself is out of the question. She asks Elliott to take her, assuming he is like any other rural kid and will know how to drive even though his mother doesn't appear to own a car. It's a remarkable trip because of two factors: Jean is in excruciating pain and Elliott, who truly doesn't know how to drive, pretends that he can.
In Burning Down the House, a book of essays about the writer's craft that was an important book in my development, Baxter talks about the advantages of putting two characters who are at odds with one another into a small space for an extended period. The cab of Jean's pickup is a perfect example. When two people are thrown together without a chance to escape, tension escalates. As each pretends to be something they aren't, Elliott not admitting that the simple task any other boy would be comfortable with, is something he has never done before, and Jean pretending that his violent stamping of the brakes and wrenching of the wheel is not making her pain flare and her blood gush, the reader feels how raw and exposed their nerves are. It is a masterpiece of suspense as the reader wonders if Elliott will get her there alive or crash into a tree on the mountain. But that isn't the only effect of this powerful scene. It creates a bond between two supremely stubborn and ill-matched people and towards this end, Novey squeezes it for every drop of character revelation it can yield.
It begins when Jean returns from a junkyard with the back of her pick-up loaded with heavy sheets of scrap metal she'll use to build her towers. "When I pulled into the driveway with my scrap load, I saw the idle son next door was slumped on the front steps again in his unlaced construction boots, his buzzed head hanging over his spread knees. I gave him a nod as I'd been doing since he'd started drawing his family's water from my spigot. He returned the nod and lowered his head to his phone. Once I unlatched the bed of the pickup, I felt the radius of his gaze on me again while I strained to lift the top piece of sheet metal" (25-26).
Jean is surprised he doesn't offer to help, and after struggling, decides to ask him outright to give her a hand. "He rose immediately and shuffled over the uneven grass between our homes. He had the curved posture of someone accustomed to bracing for humiliation and I realized it was entirely possible he hadn't offered to help because he didn't think his offer would be welcome" (26-27).
This is the first hint that Jean has unusual qualities. Where another woman would be annoyed that the kid next door didn't come to her assistance on his own, Jean is able to put herself in his shoes and arrive at an explanation that feels true.
"I expected him to deal with the sheet metal in a reluctant, inefficient sort of way. But he heaved all three pieces with a swiftness that surprised me. I also got a whiff of his BO and hoped my reaction wasn't evident on my face" (27). When he brings the sheet metal into her repurposed living room, he doesn't repeat his mother's hasty exit, but instead, looks around.
"I watched him silently take in all the Manglements on the shelves, and the ones too high for the shelves I'd left sitting on the floor.
"What is all this? he asked, pointing with his chin toward the shelves and then the workbench.
"What do you mean? I said. Doesn't your family weld in the living room?
"He pressed his lips together just slightly, not a smile, but not a grimace either" (28).
Even after Jean thanks him for his help, he continues to stand there. "He didn't seem in the same hurry to retreat as his mother had, and he wasn't looking around with the gobbling, awful scorn of the mailman either. This Elliott had another energy to him, an openness in his gaze I hadn't expected…It caused a fizz in my mind, watching Elliott step closer to my largest Manglement so far—a narrow, totem-like tower I'd left on the floor next to the window that looked out onto his house" (29).
I notice the incremental steps Novey takes to initiate their friendship, letting me feel the depth of Elliott's caution. Because the expression on his face is something between a smile and a grimace it's painfully clear that the prospect of rejection has suffused his entire being. The timidity of that half-smile is wrenching, but the author, very wisely, keeps the full picture of his past in the shadows so that his slouching figure always has a nimbus of the unknown. On the drive back from the hospital, when he shares a little bit of his story he says, "I got in the wrong fuckin' car two years ago" (63). He tells her he didn't know it was a stolen car delivering drugs, but the police charged him like the others. Jean is careful not to ask for too many details."It felt right and fair for him to get something out of this time in the truck, too—to tell whatever version of himself felt true and worth saying aloud now, driving over a mountain with a stranger, the dusk clipping at the tips of the trees" (64).
Novey's sentences pinpoint a sensation with such remarkable specificity it gives the reader easy access to Jean's private thoughts. There is the "gobbling awful scorn" of the mailman when he peers through her screen door. There is Elliott's mother's "hasty retreat" and then there is Elliott. His open gaze causes "a fizz in my mind." That unusual noun, acting more like a verb, tells us about Jean's isolation. She is not only an older, unemployed woman, she's a woman trying to be an artist, a woman who has taught herself how to weld by watching videos on You-Tube. She reads the writings of Agnes Martin and Louise Bourgeois, well-known artists whom she can quote from memory, but Elliott is the first flesh and blood person who sees something important in what she's making, and his gaze feeds her. Jean might have the water his family needs, but Elliott has the ability to make Jean feel understood. When the accident happens and the grinder eats into her thigh, Jean tells him not to call an ambulance. From her years working in the billing department at the hospital she knows she will have to pay an outrageous charge, and even though there isn't a car in the driveway next door, she assumes that surely Elliott will know how to drive.
"On his jerky turn at the intersection, my leg swung and crashed against the door. I swore and Elliott mumbled that this was a terrible idea. You need to go in an ambulance, he said" (39). But even though it's clear to her that Elliott is not a driver, Jean hides her fear, mumbling encouragement.
They are trapped together in the truck's cab, a non-driver negotiating steep mountain twists and descents, an injured woman trying to keep herself from passing out. She quotes her mentors, declaiming in a loud voice that sculpture is an exorcism, something that Louise Bourgeois stated that she has taken to heart. It is a relief when they finally reach the hospital. "He did handle the brakes better now, pulling into the emergency entrance and parking the truck just fine along the curb. Neither of us spoke as he lifted me once more into his arms. I reached for his neck but gave up. I was just too limp, couldn't steady my own neck as he carried me inside" (44).
When I first read it, I paused over the detail of the limp neck, wondering why it was included. Then I saw the image Novey was creating. It shows Jean's complete abdication and echoes with what is perhaps the most famous sculpture in the western world, Michelangelo's Pieta, a dead son draped across the arms of his mother, his head hanging down. Jean isn't dead yet, but her death is what the novel opens with, and that's when Elliott summons Leah. The image also reveals an important quality in Elliott. He follows through. He didn't refuse to take her, and now that they have arrived, he carries her in with great tenderness.
After Jean is stitched up and released, she says, "I'm grateful to you, Hounslow, I really am…And you know what…I believe you're on the holy squad now of people who've saved an old lady" (62). Her use of the word "holy" affirms the Biblical echoes of that image, and referring to him by his last name, which is how she always addresses him, hides her growing love and fondness, even her problematic feelings of lust. What a woman! What a wonderfully large and complex character! Even at a moment of extreme pain, she was aware of Elliott's vulnerability, and on that awful drive, took care to encourage him.
The accident with the grinder happens early in the novel, leaving plenty of space for Leah's story to emerge. As she drives with her family towards the town she left decades earlier to meet Elliott and see the towers, she remembers her broken history with Jean. That distant past, full of pain and anger, is counterpointed with the story of Elliott and Jean, creating a rounded picture of a place and the woman who stayed there and carved a life for herself despite the claustrophobia of a small town.
Beware: Take What You Need is a hard book to leave. I'm in the process of reading it a second time. It touches two contemporary hot spots: rural politics and the desperation of hapless young men who lack opportunity in the boarded-up towns they can't leave, yet these familiar flash points are not Novey's focus, they simply describe the hostilities simmering in the background while what she's truly concerned with is how an older woman who made grievous mistakes with Leah becomes an artist and shares that passion with a young man she tries to befriend.
Novey, Idra. Take What You Need. New York: Viking, 2023.