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From the award-winning author of the acclaimed story collection The Heaven of Animals, called “a wise debut…beautiful [stories] with a rogue touch” (The New York Times Book Review), comes a sweeping, domestic novel about a family that reunites at their North Carolina lake house for one last vacation before the home is sold—and the long-buried secrets that are finally revealed.

The Starling family is scattered across the country. Parents Richard and Lisa live in Ithaca, New York, and work at Cornell University. Their son Michael, a salesperson, lives in Dallas with his elementary school teacher wife, Diane. Michael’s brother, Thad, an aspiring poet, makes his home in New York City with his famous painter boyfriend, Jake. For years they’ve traveled to North Carolina to share a summer vacation at the family lake house.

That tradition is coming to an end, as Richard and Lisa have decided to sell the treasured summer home and retire to Florida. Before they do, the family will spend one last weekend at the lake. But what should to be a joyous farewell takes a nightmarish turn when the family witnesses a tragedy that triggers a series of dramatic revelations among the Starlings—alcoholism, infidelity, pregnancy, and a secret the parents have kept from their sons for over thirty years. As the weekend unfolds, relationships fray, bonds are tested, and the Starlings are forced to reckon with who they are and what they want from this life.

Set in today’s America, Lake Life is a beautifully rendered, emotionally compelling novel in the tradition of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth.

Chapter 1 1.
The boy on the back of the boat, laughing.

The sky, pewter-stamped and threatening rain.

Michael Starling, age thirty-three, warm on his father’s boat, watches the other boat, the boy, the bay—the water that will never be his because Michael’s parents are selling the house.

Yesterday, they arrived—Michael and Diane, Jake and Thad—and were given the news: Richard and Lisa Starling will not be retiring to the lake. In a week, the Starling family summer home will be sold so that Michael and Thad’s parents may retire, instead, to a pocket of Florida shore that screams margaritas and sand and all things distinctly un-Starling.

This decision, it’s not like Michael’s parents. They are not Florida people. They are ex-hippies, academics. They are lovers of cold mountain lakes and clear, cool streams, of trees that change color in the fall. Their summers are North Carolina summers, starry skies and the converted double-wide the family affectionately calls its cabin in the woods.

What has become of Michael’s parents? Who are these brave fools who splash before him, bobbing in swimsuits and inner tubes in the calm waters of a Lake Christopher summer day?

Onshore, a heron picks through reeds for fish. Above, clouds cover and uncover the sun.

A morning on the lake—sandwiches, swimming—this was the Starlings’ plan before the rogue vessel arrived, unzipping the water behind it, never mind swimmers or the bay’s enforced no-wake speed. The boat dropped anchor too close, and the man at the wheel uncovered his head and waved with a hat—a captain’s hat!—from the deck. He whooped, spat a wad of tobacco overboard, then turned up his music very, very loud.

This is not good lake etiquette. This is not done.

Lake Christopher is not a party lake, and this is not a noisy bay. Longtime residents work hard to keep it that way, having survived decades of development and two challenges—one public, one corporate—of eminent domain.

The interloper boat blasts Jimmy Buffett, The Party Barge stenciled pink along its side. Its pontoons gleam gray under a gray sky.

Michael’s father doesn’t seem to mind. “Join us!” he calls to the man with the captain’s hat. Then everyone from The Party Barge is in the water, all but the boy (swimmer’s ear, his mother says, a shame) and his older sister, left aboard to watch the boy. Soon, though, the sister is under the canopy on her back on the deck of the boat, eyes closed, earbuds in.

Michael watches the boy and wants a drink.

The boy is four, maybe five. Where the boy’s biceps should be are pumpkin-colored water wings. He moves to the outboard motor, then straddles the cover, a jockey in silver swim trunks. His horse is tattooed Evinrude, his racetrack the sun-dappled water in his wake. “Giddy-up!” he screams.

Some might find this cute. Michael doesn’t.

The inflatables bulge like blood pressure cuffs around the boy’s arms. One hand releases an invisible rein, and the boy mines a bag of Cheetos in his lap. He turns his head to observe his sister in the boat, his parents swimming fifty yards away. Michael follows the boy’s line of sight. When he looks back, he finds a finger. It is a middle finger, the signature neon of Cheetos, and it is raised in Michael’s direction.

Michael shuts his eyes. Why is he watching over this kid? He doesn’t even like kids. He opens his eyes. The boy sticks out his tongue.

Hey, Michael wants to call to the negligent parents, your shitty kid’s giving me the finger, and your other shitty kid’s asleep.

Michael should be swimming, but his head has bats in it. Sobriety is wings in the skull. It’s echolocation behind the eyes. He needs vodka, stat, but this morning he woke to an empty orange juice jug and no way to sneak liquor undetected onto the boat. His family will put up with a lot, but not vodka before noon.

The boy raises the chip bag to his mouth, and his chin and chest are dusted orange. Then he drops the bag into the lake. He stares at Michael, daring him to speak.

It’s a new sensation, being bullied by a child, and Michael can’t say he cares for it.

He cradles his head. He misses his liquor cabinet. He doesn’t miss his house. He’d rather be here than back in Texas. He’s spent every summer on this lake since he was two, and if there’s a place he feels at peace, it’s here.

The boy draws himself to his knees and peers over the motor cover’s edge.

The boy’s family, they aren’t from here. Michael had them pegged for out-of-towners. But out-of-towners pilot marina-rentals, and this is no marina-rental. This pontoon is an Avalon Ambassador, 90K on a good day, a watercraft that makes the Starlings’ six-seat fishing boat the seafaring equivalent of Tom Hanks’s Cast Away raft. (Michael’s father christened theirs The Sea Cow, hand-painting the name on the gunwale in blue house paint that, thirty years later, has faded to a wavery a Cow.) No, these people—the mother with her Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses, the father with his faux naval captain’s cap—they aren’t locals or vacationers. They’re newly minted lake house owners breaking in the captain’s midlife-crisis present to himself. Even as the Ambassador entered the bay, the mother was probably cutting price tags from the stack of towels at her side.

These are loud people who loudly flash their wealth around. To Michael, these people are everything that is wrong with America in 2018.

Speakers thump. Guitars strum. And for the love of all that is holy, would someone get Jimmy Buffett a goddamn cheeseburger already?

At the shoreline, the heron lunges and comes up with mud.

On the other boat, the girl who’s supposed to be watching her brother is definitely asleep. She’s young, late teens, bikinied, body toned and honey-tan. She’s roughly the age and shape Diane was when she and Michael met here, in this bay, fifteen summers ago.

The boy leaves his knees. He’s squatting on the motor now. His sister shifts in sleep, and it occurs to Michael that these siblings are far enough apart in age that the boy might be a mistake. Perhaps the accident waiting to happen has been an accident all his life.

The first one you smother. The others, he’s heard, raise themselves.

Michael doesn’t want a first one, never did. That was their agreement. That was always the agreement.

Diane floats on a raft in blue water, belly-up. She won’t show for a few weeks, though sometimes Michael swears he sees the hint of something, a contour, a fattening. His wife isn’t fat, but she’s no longer the girl on the boat. He wishes she was, and, wishing, knows this makes him hashtag something or other. He doesn’t want to be whatever wanting a fit, young wife makes him. But wanting not to be won’t ease the want. He misses youth, his and his wife’s.

Does this make him sexist? His mother would say yes. His father would say no. Thad, his brother, wouldn’t care, and Jake wouldn’t know what Michael was talking about. Jake, Thad’s rich, attractive, slender boyfriend, is young. He’s naive. He lives in New York and makes paintings for other rich, attractive, slender people who live in New York. As far as Michael can tell, Jake’s interest in other people extends only as far as the dollar signs attached to his canvases.

In the water, Jake and Thad toss a football. Michael’s father and the captain laugh, water noodles rising from their crotches, red, obscene. The mothers tread water, talking, Diane between them on her raft.

The girl on the pontoon boat sits up. She says something to her brother that Michael can’t make out over the Jimmy Buffett din. She pokes at her phone a minute, then lowers the phone, lies down, and shuts her eyes.

From her raft, Diane won’t look at Michael.

For fifteen years, they were so happy. Happy enough. Content, at least, before Diane upended everything. People change, she said. Michael’s not so sure. Did Diane change, or did she trick him? Is this what she wanted all along?

Michael moves to his father’s chair at the helm and flips on the fish finder. The depth here measures sixty feet. At the fifty-foot mark, something big drifts gray across the screen, a catfish, maybe, or a tree branch settling into underwater rot.

His mother adjusts her broad-brimmed sun hat—the cancer hat, she calls it, an attempt at levity that, every time, makes Michael cringe. Probably, she’s telling the other mother about the skin cancer she beat. Again, Michael thinks, Florida? Seriously?

The bats cavort. Soon his hands will shake. He really, really, really needs a drink.

The boy perched on the motor flips him off again. The sister’s earbuds have popped out, and her mouth is slack with sleep.

The heron in the reeds gives up and lifts off, fishless. The boy watches, and Michael follows the boy’s eyes following the bird.

The boy smiles. He stands. Then he’s overboard.

His body tugs him under, and the water wings rocket from his arms like champagne corks. A hand breaks the surface, slaps, but the floats slither, amphibious, from his grasp. The hand does not break the surface a second time.

And only Michael’s seen—seen the boy stand, then fall, the seat of his swim trunks hitting the shell of the outboard motor, hard; seen him slip over the side; seen, in the eyes of the child, water below and sun above, a transmission, one word telegraphed from boy to man, and that word was: Please.

Michael rises, kicks off his shoes and sheds his shirt. He calls to the others, a cry he can’t be sure is heard over the music blasting from the boat. He dives. He swims. He turns his face to take a breath and calls for help again, but he cannot stop. He cannot break his stride.

No splashing ahead, no hands.

Three more strokes, and Michael’s close enough. He takes a breath and dives. He’s seeking silver swim trunks, teeth, anything that might catch light in the belly of a lake. But ten feet down the light is scarce, the water turned to murk.

He pinches his nose, pushes air from his ears to equalize the pressure.

Fifteen feet. Twenty. Blind, but grasping. Water in fistfuls, but no boy.

Come on.

He tunnels, pulls. How deep is he? How fast does a body sink?

The light is gone, and the water grows colder the deeper he goes. Whatever happens, he must not lose track of up and down.

In high school, he could hold his breath for a minute at a time, but high school was a long time ago. His ears throb. His lungs are lit coals. Wait too long, and he’ll take a breath reflexively. He can’t be underwater when that happens.

He has to surface. Surface or drown. Except. Except.

A whisper. The dance of something just out of reach. Swim trunks, fluttering. The pink of fingernails. Either the boy’s below or Michael’s dead and dreaming this.

Then he has the hand.

He can’t see it, can’t make out the boy’s hand in his own, but he has it. The hand is there, and it is good. It’s a hand he can swim with. He’ll rise and hold the hand and not let go.

Later, in the hospital, Michael will wonder. Say he’d had a drink that morning, just to calm him down. Say the shock of his parents’ revelation, the house for sale, hadn’t led him to drink so much the night before. He might have held on tighter, risen true.

But that isn’t what happens.

What happens is that Michael kicks the boy.

He doesn’t mean to, but a body underwater isn’t weightless, and swimming with one arm is hard to do. The boy’s body drags. It is kicked. And just like that, the hand is gone.

He exhales, but there’s no air left to leave his lungs.

He’s swimming the wrong way. The boy is below. Why, then, does Michael rise? He cannot rise without the child. He must turn back, but his body will not let him. Something in him has taken over, and the something in him wants to live.

He kicks, he claws, but there’s no light. Impossible to gauge direction without the compass of the sun.

Then, a vague illumination. An object passing overhead.

He’s heard stories. Catfish the size of zeppelins. Sturgeon armored like gators, ten feet long. Unless the thing he sees is his soul rising, leaving him behind.

No.

He is alive. He lives, and he is swimming. The fish or soul, it grows, and he swims toward it.

He’s lost all sense of distance, space, and time. All dimensions are water. Fireworks go off behind his eyes, and a siren screams for him to breathe.

Breathe, then, he thinks. Join the boy. Be done with this.

Except that Michael’s life is not his own. He is a father. His life is marked by that which is in bloom. This truth hits him with a force so great he hardly notices his head striking the bottom of the boat.

All is water. Then light. Then air.

He coughs, gasps, and throws up. He breathes.

Above him, the girl is screaming. Her brother is at the bottom of the lake. Surely, by now, he rests. Surely, he’s stopped fighting, stopped water-calling, now, his sister’s name.

Michael tastes salt. The salt is blood and the blood is his.

He cannot dive. He dives again, he’ll die.

He is a father.

His life is not his own.

Beyond the boat, others fling themselves from rafts and swim to him. And in the distance, wings, severed from their body, spin, orange and current-caught. They orbit each other, knowing. They tumble, ocular with water’s awful wink.
Ashley Inguanta

David James Poissant is the author of The Heaven of Animals: Stories, in print in five languages, winner of the GLCA New Writers Award and a Florida Book Award, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, One Story, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and in numerous anthologies including New Stories from the South, Best New American Voices, and Best American Experimental Writing. A recipient of scholarships and fellowships from the Bread Loaf, Sewanee, Tin House, Wesleyan, and Longleaf writers’ conferences, he teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida and lives in Orlando with his wife and daughters. Lake Life is his first novel.

"If your household’s summer vacation was canceled this year, console and distract yourself with Lake Life, the tale of a family getaway gone very wrong...The novel is less concerned with the origins of dysfunction than with how it plays out...There’s a lot of bad behavior here, perhaps because Poissant is so good at writing it. His prose throughout is sure-footed and intelligent...[He] also leaves room for absorbing discussions of art, the socioeconomics of vacation property development, and religion."Jean Thompson for The New York Times Book Review 

"Lake Life establishes Poissant as one of the South’s best new writers working today. It is a dazzling work that is so confidently crafted, so keenly perceptive and so deeply compassionate, it’s hard to believe it was written by someone this early in his career."Suzanne Van Atten, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 

"Masterfully crafted...Simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious, the novel's brisk pace and perfectly executed moments make for a stunning, unforgettable story...Poissant's compassion for his characters generates empathy for even their most disastrous actions. A totally engrossing story of the long shadows cast by troubled relationships and the glimmer of hope that dawns after painful confrontation." —Booklist (starred review)

"Poissant demonstrates superb talent for observation, cultivating a familiar, lived-in feeling of the family’s lake house, where each character’s unique viewpoint emerges powerfully and their everyday interactions gain greater significance. This is a remarkable, moving depiction of a family on the brink." Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Poissant is one of our most talented local writers and we've been waiting for this, his first novel, for what feels like a very long time. If 2020 did nothing else good, at least it brought us this book." Orlando Weekly (Staff Pick and Best Book of 2020)

Lake Life is a lyrically inventive and emotionally generous novel. Poissant is a gifted chronicler of the fault lines that lie just below family life.” —Jenny Offill, author of Dept. of Speculation and the New York Times bestseller Weather 

“A beautiful story about family and especially about the paradox of adult children.  Vividly imagined and carefully rendered, Lake Life is both generous and unflinching.  I loved every member of this functionally dysfunctional cast.”—Karen Joy Fowler, author of the New York Times bestsellers The Jane Austen Book Club and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

"By turns moving, tender, and wryly funny, this gorgeously-written ensemble novel about the unspoken dreams and secrets and self-deceptions of a middle class family is deeply insightful and rewarding. David James Poissant is a young writer to watch!"  —Dan Chaon, author of Ill Will

Lake Life is an absolute wonder. By turns tender and wrenching, gorgeous and haunting, it explores what can emerge from the wake of tragedy and the depths of love. David James Poissant is a writer of the highest order, and this stunning novel is one readers will never forget.”—Bret Anthony Johnston, author of the international bestseller Remember Me Like This

Lake Life is a beautifully written, expertly told novel about family and tragedy and love and loss. I was gripped from the very first page, and wanted desperately to know what would become of the Starling family and their lives. David James Poissant captures so beautifully the tangled love between parents and children, and how that love evolves and unfolds over time. That kind of love is not without consequence, and Poissant explores with dazzling prose and insight just how maddening and hopeful the bonds of family can be. Lake Life is a page-turner—I read it in one long sitting, resentful of interruption—and when it ended I mourned the absence of the Starling parents and children and their spouses, and wished them well. I loved this book.” Anton DiSclafani, New York Times bestselling author of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls and The After Party

"When you find yourself thinking about a novel's characters well after you've finished reading it, wondering about them and how they're doing as though they were friends of yours, family, it means that you've found something truly special: one of those books that's not just about life but somehow contains it. Poissant's characters linger just that hauntingly, and his novel breathes with just that kind of life."—Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Brief History of the Dead and The Illumination

“Poissant has written us a book that reveals the danger and the pain, the humor and the love affairs of our everyday lives as a thrilling high stakes adventure. Every moment in Lake Life is so full of tension that I could never find a good place to stop reading...so I stayed up late to finish instead. Here is a dysfunctional family I was rooting for even as I clapped my hands over my face and watched them choose wrong again and again. A humane and wise book about a family getting into all sorts of trouble. I am obsessed with the Starlings.” —CJ Hauser, author of The From-Aways and Family of Origin

 Lake Life is a terrific story, one that, over the course of a long weekend shadowed by random tragedy, delves into a family’s messy history, and finds there not only pain, but—thrillingly—stubborn survival, hope, and love. The Starling family will be with me a long time. I’m grateful for this book.” —Christopher Coake, author of You Came Back, winner of the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Fellowship and one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists 2

“David James Poissant’s first novel is a model of how to render the souls of his many equally delineated and dramatized characters. Told in stirring language, it is the complex story of contemporary Americans, each dealing with a brand of loss: of children, of youth, of self-control, and of destiny. Here is a book that is heartbreaking and true, lilting and swooping, dark and light, wry and touching."—Michael Carroll, winner of the 2015 Sue Kaufman Prize and author of Little Reef and Stella Maris   

More books from this author: David James Poissant