Research cul de sacs and again and again you will be told that their purpose is to reduce traffic. Sure, I’ll buy that as a contributing factor. Dig a little deeper and you come across a buzzword, “perceived risk.” But we all know the real reason: privacy. Anyone who’s ever looked into buying a house has discovered that you pay extra to live on a No Outlet street. We pine for a space of our own away from the bustle of the modern world, but as Scott Wrobel reveals in cul de sac, here lies danger.
Cul de sac is more like a collection of vignettes with interconnected themes than a conventional novel. In Part One, we learn about several men who live in a suburban cul de sac. Part Two zooms in on the Wiegard family with a focus on the development of the father, Gary. In each chapter of the book there is a change in narrator, each one unusual, each presenting a new set of challenges for the reader. For example:
Peter often yells at Amanda in a rising pitch, but she never yells back. They argue because they are Temperamental Artist Types, which is how Peter's tax-attorney uncle, Lyle, refers to them. Lyle is a stereotype, too: the Typical Suburban White Corporate Guy Who Labored Through College with a C Average and Now Has Too Much Economic Security and Thinks He Has the World By the Nuts. He wears fanny-packs to public events that cost large entry fees and believes that Jewish people own too much and that their humor is all based on worrying about unimportant things. Lyle will be at dinner and will eat two large portions even though he knows his bad cholesterol is above the normal range.
The reader is given the sense that a cul de sac is a cloistered environment. The appearance of coyotes in this setting raises the issue of suburban sprawl, human civilization bumping up against the little remaining territory we allocate to other species. Could the coyote be symbolic of the call of the wild, a yearning to be better in touch with the natural world? It seems clear enough that the characters in cul de sac are stuck and need to break free from the malaise that stifles them from achieving personal growth. Really these characters are teetering on the edge—barely functional.
Cul de sac could easily be adapted into a screenplay. But then again, maybe it shouldn’t be. In recent history, the film industry has been jazzed on interconnectedness. Crash. American Beauty. 13 Conversations About One Thing. 21 Grams. Hollywood is good at churning out more of the same. What’s unique about cul de sac is the way Wrobel deals with his characters. A lot of what’s going on is internal; the subtext is key.
Wrobel shows an interest in how we think. In one scene, Gary and his wife Liz are in bed talking. Liz lets out a sigh and we hear Gary's internal thought process in response:
Liz sighs all the time, long lugubrious sighs that burrow under my skin. She sighs when a kid's sock is inside-out, a jacket slides off a coat hook, when lettuce fragments fall to the floor while she's chopping a salad . . . when Danny won't leave the TV to come eat at the table, when I say I have a work meeting. The first time I used the pressure washer, I cleaned the siding, and then I power-washed my Skeeter bass boat, which didn't need washing since I'd only used it twice. Same with the thirty-foot RV trailer parked behind the garage, a 2008 Gulf Stream Prairie Schooner I bought used for $57,000. I can't remember why I bought it. Liz sighed when I bought the boat. She sighed even more when I bought the RV.
Wrobel reminds us that people are generally good at keeping uncouth matters “behind closed doors.” It’s only when a person’s reality becomes out-of-control hectic that dark secrets spill into the open in the form of Spectacle. Readers of cul de sac can look forward to a highly satisfying Spectacle when a neighborhood man receives a well-deserved comeuppance for his despicable actions.
Today, we are tethered to all kinds of knickknacks, gizmos and whatever newfangled technology Apple decides to unveil. Whether material possessions or emotional baggage, clutter piles up, and we carry the weight of these “belongings” around with us. In a conversation between Gary Wiegard and his father, Gary’s father tells him he doesn’t have time for organizing the items in his garage and shortly thereafter winds up in the hospital. While visiting his father, Gary relates, “The biggest lesson I learned from my dad's deathbed scene: people about to die still care about what's on TV.”
After his father’s death, Gary takes inventory:
Dad has two of everything in his garage—lawn mowers, weed eaters, power washers, paint guns, air compressors. He had smaller junk, too . . . .He liked to see his stuff without having to dig through shit, everything in plain view.
A good book requires the reader to do a little leg work, and cul de sac is well worth the effort (and the occasional moments when you will be catapulted out of your comfort zone). Wrobel takes a hard look at what lies beneath the false appearances of suburbia and asks us to consider whether perceived risk is worth living a detached life, a life in captivity.