Swim a Crooked Line by Al X. Griz follows several people’s lives in Nebraska: a farmer and his family including Chad who’s enlisted in the army in Afghanistan, and Rico, a linebacker for the Cornhuskers. Each character is richly imagined and contends with major societal issues. Swim a Crooked Line is a quiet novel about big ideas.
Griz is making a valiant attempt at writing the Great American Novel, in the sense that the novel is an epic that is very, very American. The book has Midwestern farming, corporate chain stores destroying Middle America, college football, and other uniquely American themes. It’s a wide-reaching novel, while covering the small details that make up people’s lives with assured breadth and sensitivity.
It’s an old-fashioned novel about old-fashioned themes. That sounds a bit like a pejorative, but it’s not. In a world where clicking Like on Facebook, or a greeter at Wal-Mart passes for human interaction, Swim a Crooked Line doesn’t wish for a simpler time: it wishes for a time when human connection was richer than it is today, and when people’s internal lives were perhaps deeper and more thoughtful than they might be in the age of social profiles. This isn’t a book about social networking, mind you, but it is a book about how the modern age has stripped people of some of their humanity.
The farmer, John, for example, laments how corporate farms are taking over his neighbors’ land. In a moving section, John is mortified by the treatment of pigs in modern-day factory farms. He also questions the war his son is going to, while being concerned about seeming unpatriotic. There is a deep political subtext to the novel, veering towards the liberal, but only if you think corporate factory farming and war are conservative notions. John, for one, is nuanced and thoughtful about his place in the world, not polarized. Again, this is what makes him somewhat old-fashioned: he carefully reasons through ideas and arguments, rather than having a quick knee-jerk opinion and moving onto the next issue.
With all these themes present, the novel isn’t preachy or overbearing. At its core, Swim a Crooked Line is about people’s lives, not about their political struggles. That is to say, the characters aren’t only defined by their political opinions, or the historical moment, but by all of the things that make up a person’s character. There may be too much backstory for some people’s tastes, but the novel does strike an interesting balance between broad historical themes and everyday life.
There’s a fairly terrible review posted online about this book stating, “If Al X. Griz’ ‘Swim A Crooked Line’ does anything well, it’s portraying human beings as god-awful.” It’s not usual at SPR to quote other reviews, but this is so misguided as to be completely mystifying. If the book has a weakness, it’s the characters are sometimes overly good-hearted and good-natured, rather than the opposite. Not to say they’re two dimensional, but to suggest that Swim a Crooked Line is about the characters’ bad behavior is a very strange misreading of the novel.
This isn’t a novel about bad people. It’s a novel about good people struggling through difficult times. This is a character-driven, not a plot-driven, book, but once you involve yourself in these people’s lives, it’s immersive and rewarding.