“It’s easy to see how to do away with what we call crime…It can be done by giving the people a chance to live, by destroying special privileges…Nobody would steal if he could get something of his own some easier way…Jail is an evidence of the lack of charity of the people on the outside who make the jails and fill them with the victims of their greed.” The Essential Words and Writings of Clarence Darrow, Larson and Marshall, Eds., Modern Library, 2007.
The transition from childhood to adulthood is difficult. At some level we reject our parents—a psychological necessity, part of the process—even though we still need them. As a college student in my home town, I remember borrowing ten or twenty dollars from my folks before every pay period because my forty-hour-a-week, split-shift, “part-time” job didn’t pay enough for me to live on. I also remember my mom joking that they saw more of me after I had moved out of the house than when I’d lived at home. Well, I’d never known anything but living with them. I wasn’t used to being in an apartment by myself.
What if, as a youth, you had no parents or grandparents, no aunts or uncles? What if you had to stand on your own two feet or sleep on the street?
Having never lived anywhere except in a Catholic orphanage or in a Georgetown University dorm, Delaney, the protagonist of Aquarius Falling, loses his scholarship at the end of his junior year not because a young woman achieves alcohol poisoning in his room but because the daughter of a major donor achieves alcohol poisoning in his room. As the first-person narrator, Delaney neither questions nor lashes out against the greedy hypocrisy of the institution nor against the attribution to him of guilt for the alcohol poisoning someone else achieved. By not questioning or lashing out, Delaney establishes himself at the beginning of the book as “easily led,” something a significant female in his future will say to him.
Delaney hitchhikes to Ocean City, where he intends to get a summer job and save money so he can complete his last year of college at whatever school he can afford. He wants to be a CPA.
The helping hand that reaches out to Delaney in Ocean City is attached to the arm of Jack, also a member of the underclass, a young man no less racist than the majority of the people in the segregationist “no coloreds on the beach” Ocean City of the early ’60s. Delaney isn’t led into racism, although he is led into tolerating it.
Tucker does an outstanding job of portraying Delaney falling in with Jack and company as they do whatever they can to lift themselves off the bottom rung of the economic ladder. The author also excels at demonstrating how an individual, given the choice between perpetual bare-existence living and a shot at bettering himself economically, slides into doing things he never before imagined himself doing. From my use of the Clarence Darrow quote above you might infer, incorrectly, that thievery is the issue of Aquarius Falling and guess that our boy Delaney becomes a college-age Oliver Twist. I’ll let the author inform you of the actual issues.
I was on a cruise ship where an ill passenger had to be air-lifted off during the night. As I, at sixty-five, watched from the veranda while two Coast Guard men were lowered to the ship deck from a helicopter, I thought of what nerves of steel some young guys have. Delaney demonstrates this quality, albeit to his own peril as often as not.
The story remains unpredictably original and truthful to the last word.
Aquarius Falling is not a novel to read if booze, drugs, and sex are apt to distract you from actual moral issues.
As I read Aquarius Falling, three other novels came to mind:
The Stranger, in which on the beach the protagonist kills a man he doesn’t know for no apparent reason. Albert Camus said, “In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death…The hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.” (Carroll, David. Albert Camus the Algerian: Colonialism, Terrorism, Justice. Columbia University Press. p27. My thanks to Wikipedia for sharing this quote.) Delaney, however, does play the game. He plays by the rules of whatever company he’s keeping, whether a Catholic orphanage, a partying university, or a band of misfits at a summer beach resort. He questions too little for his own good, perhaps because questioning hadn’t proved a fruitful pursuit for a kid growing up in an institution.
Another book that came to my mind while reading Aquarius Falling was Queer, although Delaney isn’t homosexual. In William S. Burroughs’ novel, written in the early fifties but not published until 1985, the druggie protagonist makes his way among other expat Americans and Europeans in the seamy side of Mexico City of the 1940s.
A third book that came to mind was Day of the Locust, Nathanael West’s Great Depression novel of outcasts who came to Hollywood, among them the young male artist protagonist who, at the end of the novel, finds himself in a riot at a movie premier.
I highly recommend Aquarius Falling to readers of literary fiction, especially coming-of-age fans capable of seeing heroism in a protagonist who doesn’t always do the right thing.