The men and women who live on America’s streets are often discussed as a collection of problems to be solved. If only we changed this policy or offered that bit of aid, we say, homelessness could be fixed. A few folks endeavor to provide such practical help, while the rest of us sit in comfort and make sympathetic (or not so sympathetic) noises. In his ninth novel, Robert Walker, Corey Mesler imagines his way past our usual discourse to enter the mind and heart of one homeless man wandering the streets of Memphis. Robert Walker is sorely in need of practical aid of many kinds, but his suffering is deeper and more profound than any material help can touch.
We meet Walker as he wakes “on the two hundred and twenty-fifth day of his abandonment” in a remote, wooded corner of Overton Park. The nature of the abandonment is not immediately clear, but we quickly learn that it involves a woman, Lyn, who is “a spook, a ghost now,” and who has “become too dear to him.” Lyn’s memory clearly causes Walker pain, but he has more pressing concerns than lost love. He needs to find a toilet where he can relieve himself, wash up, and most importantly, look into a mirror and try to figure out why half his face suddenly seems to be paralyzed. Then, if he’s lucky, he might be able to beg enough money for breakfast.
Thus begins a story of two days and nights in Walker’s struggle to survive, which is shaped by random encounters with kindness, judgment, and casual cruelty. There’s a brief, excruciating brush with well-intentioned exploitation, as well. Like most folks living on the margins, Walker is keenly aware that the arrogance of privilege takes many forms, and though he can’t really afford any attachment to his pride, he still hurts when it’s wounded. Most of the people who cross his path, including some of his fellow street denizens, see him only in terms of their own needs and prejudices. Though, like them, he’s rarely able to think much beyond himself, he has enough awareness to regret the failing, and this feeling puts him slightly ahead of the herd. In his clearest moments, Walker seems to be a pilgrim in search of authentic human communion, lost in a world that echoes the novel’s description of Memphis traffic: “clamorous and reckless and full of malevolence.”
The facial paralysis turns out to be Bell’s palsy, an affliction that comes and goes seemingly at random, with no clear cause or cure. It’s miserable and humiliating, and there’s not much to be done about it. As Walker’s tragic past is revealed, the ailment begins to seem like a perfect metaphor for his general condition. His misfortune is obvious enough, but bad luck is not really an explanation for anything, and there’s no quick fix for heartbreak. Whatever else he may be, Walker is most definitely not a problem waiting to be solved. He’s a mystery, just like every other human being, and Mesler seems to suggest that society’s real sin is its failure to recognize that truth.
The secondary characters in Robert Walker include a pretty, sympathetic social worker, a villainous psychiatrist, a smug academic, and an assortment of Walker’s fellow homeless. It’s a predictable cast for such a tale, but Mesler makes them a vivid and engaging bunch. Though none of them is drawn with particular depth, they’re fully alive on the page and serve to make Walker’s plight feel real and poignant—and sometimes quite funny. (Robert Walker wouldn’t be a Mesler novel without some bawdiness and breezy lust.) The most important bit player, though, is the city of Memphis. True to his name, Walker spends most of his time traveling by foot, and his wandering becomes a detailed if haphazard walking tour of Mesler’s hometown.
There’s not much of Mesler’s usual literary whimsy in Robert Walker, but he does give a clutch of writers—Thomas Pynchon, Iris Murdoch, and Wallace Stegner—walk-on roles via their books, and his own shop, the venerable Burke’s Book Store, has a minor cameo, as well. Mesler’s fiction never seems to take itself too seriously, and Robert Walker is no exception, despite its fundamentally tragic subject. It’s a bittersweet novel with a big heart that seeks to stretch the heart of the reader.
Maria Browning is a fifth-generation Tennessean who grew up in Erin and Nashville. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has attended the Clothesline School of Writing in Chicago, the Moss Workshop with Richard Bausch at the University of Memphis, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She lives in White Bluff.