by Martha Anne Toll
Atticus Lish’s second novel, The War For Gloria, is an ambitious book with a lot to say about family loyalty and love.
The War For Gloria follows the author’s impressive debut, Preparation for the Next Life, a heart-wrenching story of love between an Iraq war vet and an undocumented immigrant, both extremely down on their luck.
In his second novel, Lish dives into a different kind of love — that between mother and son. The titular “war” is Corey Goltz’s battle to save his mother, Gloria, in the face of a terminal diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Gloria is a single mother and a free spirit; her son is a teenager. Throughout Corey’s life, the two have moved through a series of sketchy living accommodations in working class Boston and suburbs, including Gloria’s car. When “the weight of the time and the evidence of who she was would hit her,” Gloria wonders, “Will it ever be okay?” She gives the finger to Harvard Square, looking at “the privilege and hypocrisy.” Her “scream of rage was at herself.”
The War For Gloria is written in memory of Barbara Lee Works, Atticus Lish’s late mother. Lish, the son of the well-known literary figure, Gordon Lish, does not elaborate further.
As the book opens, Corey is a smart, inquisitive high school sophomore. Gloria works at a private company with a “social service function, helping people who had been in drug programs find work.” They live in a modest apartment overlooking the water in Quincy, Massachusetts.
As in Lish’s first novel, The War For Gloria is peopled with well-drawn characters who live in precarious economic circumstances. Corey, it seems, feels more comfortable with students who struggle with an absent or deceased parent. He has two friends — Molly, a star athlete and student, the son of a single father, Tom, who runs a construction business, and Adrian, a brilliant and strange kid headed for MIT, whose mother has a brain tumor.
Corey is the result of an on-and-off affair that ended a long time ago. His biologic father, Leonard, is a shadowy figure whom Corey comes to realize is a charlatan. Leonard is not the physicist, nor even the cop that Corey thought he was. Leonard has done nothing to provide for his son’s welfare or help raise him. He reenters Gloria and Corey’s life after Gloria’s ALS diagnosis, making everything worse.
The backbone of The War For Gloria is Corey’s unwavering commitment to his mother as she gradually loses motor functions and speech. Corey’s teenaged reasoning — all heart — does not result in what’s best for him. But with great compassion, he manages to care for his ailing mother. He says his mom is “great. You’re greater than you know.” He drops out of high school to work a series of odd jobs and be available when she needs him.
Leonard starts slumming in the apartment, taking up space and food and even “borrowing” Gloria’s car for a week so that she is forced to navigate public transportation in her compromised condition. Corey sinks into justified, unfettered rage toward his father, whose garbled explanation of ALS is the opposite of comforting. “It’s a bulbar palsy or prion disease or radium poisoning or dot dot dot.” Corey joins a fight club to toughen himself up. He hopes not only to make money as a fighter, but also to gain the strength necessary to bend his father to his will, by physical force if necessary.
Gloria’s former friend and lover Joan also reappears and helps for a time, but like other adults in Corey’s life, she too disappears.
Lish is a sensational literary craftsman, using the words in his toolbelt to construct narrative that is at once coolly dispassionate and red hot with emotion. Despite his unceasing maternal devotion, Corey is wracked by self-doubt. “He could have built the ramp, but didn’t…. He could have done yogic breathing and used prana to bring his mother peace.” Corey’s version of love:
“To truly love someone, you must be willing to do anything for them…. You must be able to face any fear, any pain. Killing was easy, fighting was hard, ALS was the hardest of all….”
Spoilers prevent a discussion of the last part of The War For Gloria. Suffice to say that the narrative descends into a level of violence for which I was unprepared. Corey is kicked around and abandoned in every sense of the word. I felt the book thinned out as it moved to its conclusion. I wasn’t sure what the violence contributed to the world Lish had so painstakingly and masterfully built. Perhaps that is Lish’s point. His Boston is one with seamy undersides and unhinged characters who act with malice and revenge. The result is a very dark novel.
I will be thinking about The War For Gloria for a long time. The book opens a disturbing window into a teenager’s losing battle to save his mother, our broken healthcare system, the power that humans have to inflict harm on one another, and one boy’s efforts to save not only his mother, but himself.
Martha Anne Toll is a DC based writer and reviewer. Her debut novel, Three Muses, won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and is forthcoming from Regal House Publishing in Fall 2022.