In ‘The End of the Day,’ the Past Is Knocking at the Door

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Credit...Van Scott-Clegg

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Sept. 29, 2020Updated 8:46 a.m. ET

By Bill Clegg

In Bill Clegg’s magnificent debut novel, “Did You Ever Have a Family?,” a diverse group of people, united only by their fleeting connection with the central character, June Reid, stitch together their subjective and incomplete accounts of her life in the wake of an unspeakable trauma. One character in particular, Lydia, admits, “The truth was something she had hidden or bent all her adult life, and she had suffered and caused others to suffer because of it.”

Clegg’s equally remarkable second novel, “The End of the Day,” employs a similar notion as a load-bearing wall for the interiority of his characters. However, in this case, unspoken truths carry with them a feeling of menace.

On the surface, “The End of the Day” replicates features of its predecessor. Once again, the setting is the fictional town of Wells, Conn., and characters alternate points of view to fill in gaps in one another’s accounts. But this time they tend to undermine each other, for good reason — Clegg’s new cast isn’t seeking revelation, but pointedly avoiding it. The characters are ignorant of key events that shaped their lives and, while one could argue whether they’re better or worse for this, they do come to know devastating secrets.

[ Read an excerpt from “The End of the Day.” ]

The first person we meet is the wealthy heiress Dana Goss, the never-married, childless end of her family line, on a mission to show up uninvited at the home of a former friend she hasn’t seen in almost half a century. That unlikely friend, a weary, working-class woman named Jackie, struggles through a rocky marriage to her high school sweetheart. She supported her kids, and later grandkids, with modest resources. The truth Dana seems desperate to reveal is, for Jackie, unnecessary, if not pointlessly destructive, and whether and how Dana will force it upon her anyway is one of the most brilliant tensions in their already heightened dynamic.

This relationship alone would be enough to showcase Clegg’s deft handling of class division and privilege, but then he adds a third prominent character: Lupita Lopez, the abused daughter of the Goss family’s groundskeeper. Lupita is about the same age as Dana and Jackie, but for much of her childhood, occupies the same world only geographically. From her torturous bus rides to elementary school, where she’s as plagued by Jackie’s silence as she is by the open racism of a local policeman’s daughter, to her teenage years of alienation, envy and agony, any pleasure she captures seems to be fleeting or provisional. Describing a brief, passionate tryst with a local boy, Lupita says, “She would think back on this hour with him all the rest of her life and remember it as the happiest, most exquisitely perfect and the most misleading.”

In this sense, anyway, Lupita is aligned with her peers. Her account of heartbreaking impermanence echoes two of their observations — one that Jackie makes about her first year of marriage, and one that Dana makes while reconsidering the compromised happiness of a prominent ancestor. (“You got what you wanted, even if it didn’t last for very long,” Dana thinks, with newfound respect.) Now that Jackie has moved past the “short, happy period where she only wanted what she had,” she’s failed — refused perhaps — to enable a more sustainably happy life. As the lingering memories of that brief, perfect time mock her, Jackie is more than willing to leave the past undisturbed.

Lupita, already a world away from these women when we first meet her, is also loath to accept overtures from anyone connected to her past. The fact of her remoteness soon becomes a comfort, a kind of happy ending told in reverse.

Another important character is Hap, a middle-aged journalist in Philadelphia who has a dying father and a newborn baby, whose connection to the three women is too deliciously plotted to be hinted at. At first, Hap occupies a different realm altogether. He’s a man racked with regret, puzzled by what he knows of his family history, willing to upset his life to discover secrets of the past.

As Hap’s searching draws his life closer to the women, he comes to share their dilemma: What is the price of disturbing old secrets? Who benefits most from silence? “You know nothing,” one character claims near the end, not without envy and wonder. For the beautifully complex characters who populate “The End of the Day,” whom or what the truth actually sets free is richly called into question.

With detail and empathy, Clegg is particularly effective at describing the subtleties of relationships. His work is political without being didactic or dogmatic; and, especially in his descriptions of Hap’s life, he illustrates the elusiveness of the American dream. In a novel where there are only a few villains, the past is the ultimate antagonist, the memories of others a great army at the gates. Ultimately, there’s no old order to be restored — and, for these four characters, that revelation alone may be a victory.

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