Review by Walter Cummins
The words of Idra Novey’s title, Take What You Need, suggest a sign scrawled on a heap of broken, useless stuff not worth a payment. Junk and decay fill the pages of the novel—rundown neighborhoods of abandoned houses with rotting porches and boarded windows, twisted hunks of metal, shards of glass. The people mirror the objects—scarred physically and mentally, hungry, unwashed, angry and, in some cases, destructive.
It’s Jean who is different. Living in one of the few functioning homes on Paton Street, the one she was born in more than sixty years before, Jean is driven to create art from whatever she can scavenge or occasionally buy, especially sheets of metal from what remains of her family’s scrapyard, now named Levy Recycling. She welds and assembles iron and steel, shards of glass, printed pictures. Those are initially boxes that she calls Manglements and stores on living room shelves until she can assemble them into towers with apparatus first inherited from her father. Throughout, she cites Louise Bourgeois as her inspiration and sculpting an exorcism. The novel’s epigraph comes from Bourgeois: “Every day you have to abandon your past or accept it, and then, if you cannot accept it, you become a sculptor.” Jean can’t accept hers.
Even though Jean is dead at the novel beginning, having fallen off a ladder, her narration alternates with that of her estranged stepdaughter, Leah, to relate scenes from the past, background for the situation Leah faces when she finally arrives at Jean’s house to see the sculptures.
Leah has made this trip with her husband, Gerardo, and young son, Silvestre, from a very different world, an educated, middle-class existence in Long Island City where she works as an editor, Gerardo as a linguist. They met when Leah lived in his country of Peru after college. Their Spanish exchange in a gas station in Jean’s realm leads to a racist insult from the woman at the next pump, Leah ranting outrage in return. Just finding Jean’s town has been a driving ordeal, and once there, seeing the broken streets and the broken young man, Elliott, now occupying Jean’s house, Leah’s immediate instinct is to get in their car and flee.
While the poor, unhealthy people of Jean’s realm are socially dysfunctional and materially deprived, Leah’s need is of a different sort. Her mother abandoned her father when she was born, and Jean, the stepmother who nurtured her for nine years of marriage to Leah’s father ran off too. Leah needs a material love. Jean craves that connection, grieving because she abandoned the child and had been forbidden to see her by the father.
The novel’s characters fall into three categories: the educated, intellectual Leah and her flourishing family; Jean, who is singular in her solitude, reading a biography of Van Gogh and writings of artists like Agnes Martin and Louise Bourgeois, who inspire her obsession with producing Manglements; and finally the lost and destitute inhabitants, primary Elliott.
Elliott is the most original of the characters, even more distinctive than Jean. Malnourished, unbathed, scarred, impoverished, and unemployable because of a drug conviction, he embodies a taker driven by wants, including Jean’s cellphone, laptop, wallet, food, and a place to sleep in her house. Outside the house, he joins a decadent group of stoned and violent young men, those who would be considered the dregs of society, what Leah’s father called “lowlifes.” But when it comes down to a choice of worlds, he chooses Jean’s rather than theirs, even having his teeth knocked out when he refuses to attend a rally for a certain Presidential candidate who exploits the rage of the others.
Elliott’s relationship with Jean is complex. He drives and then literally carries her into a hospital when she gushes blood from the deep cut of a power tool accident, then tends to her when he brings her home. Although he lacks an artistic goal of his own, he commits himself to helping fulfill hers, using his height and what strength he has for assembling the Manglements into towers. He accepts their importance to Jean and, after her death, to their own existence as works of art, instinctively accepting their need to exist.
Yet Jean, encouraging him to use her shower because of his offensive body odor, does not offer him a real bath towel, making him use the hand towels on the rack. She feeds and pays him, yet this denial haunts her with a guilt equivalent to that she feels for her failure to be a real mother to Leah. In effect, with Elliott she had taken what she needs.
But works of art have been created and acknowledged, with Jean, Leah, and Elliott having different roles in the fulfillment and preservation of these pieces. Ultimately, it turns out that satisfying human need find its sources in more than the detritus of objects. Struggle, pain, and—often—confusions are inevitable in the process. And people often have no idea what it is that they must take. Yet they find their way.
After finally acknowledging the bigotry of the people around her, those who maimed Elliott, Jean praises Elliott’s gift for envisioning which pieces will fulfill “the glorious pleasure of erecting something new.” She quotes Bourgeois: “Sculpture, Louise said, being a chance to fix what you can’t in your prima materia, whatever monstrousness lurks so deep in your marrow there is no getting it out entirely.”