Benjamin Markovits' Christmas in Austin
In this novel of a family gathering for the holidays, Austin serves as a mirror for the characters, and perhaps for the reader
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Dec. 6, 2019
You circle Austin-Bergstrom to pick up relatives as they arrive. You grab Vietnamese takeout at Sunflower on Research. You visit a medical clinic on Far West. You buy groceries at Central Market. You snag a drink at Spider House. You make pilgrimages to the lights on 37th Street and to the Zilker Christmas tree. That's all to say that when you come to Christmas in Austin, you aren't just making a drive-by of the titular city. Novelist Benjamin Markovits sets you down for a good long stay in a place that it's clear he knows intimately.
The reason for the setting is that it's home to the Essingers, a family introduced to readers in A Weekend in New York, Markovits' 2018 novel in which the parents and siblings of aging tennis pro Paul gather around him for a U.S. Open match that could be his last. In the end, it is, so now he's retired and in Central Texas, building a home in Wimberley and biking on Sunday mornings with Lance Armstrong. But it's not Paul who brings the clan together here. It's parents Liesel and Bill, who have invited their brood to crowd into their North University home for a week of seasonal celebration ... and the family tensions that inevitably arise with such reunions.
The book is laid out in seven chapters, one for each day, and the chapters amble along like the days you've no doubt spent with your own relations: low-key; aimless; structured, if at all, around meals and ball games. Kids plant themselves in front of the tube and gorge on it the way grownups around them do on food and drink, watching shows their parents wouldn't allow them to at home. Adults, meanwhile, while away the days meandering from room to room and conversation to conversation, the talk mostly small, though with the occasional dispute, the roots of which typically stretch back through family history and involve long-suppressed feelings. Given the extensive cast of characters under this roof – progenitors Liesel and Bill; siblings Paul, Nathan, Susie, and Jean; their partners (present, past, and future); and a handful of kids – and the amount of time they're together, bodies are bound to rub against one another, creating what Markovits calls "affectionate friction." Sometimes we witness that externally – inadvertently sharp retorts, teasing, sniping, wrangling – but more often, we're privy to it internally, in the tangle of thoughts complicating each person's mind. Markovits opens every head and articulates the complexity of feeling there – impulses and second thoughts, ambivalence and conviction – no matter the age of the character. And he deftly shifts perspective so that over the course of this expansively empathetic novel, the reader grasps the full scope of this family, where it's been and where it's going, what it's lost and what it wants.
In this way, Austin works as a mirror for the Essingers. Their home is a city that can't stop thinking about its past, the beauty and simplicity – imagined or not – of earlier times; but it's also a place that's changing, constantly, relentlessly, growing and becoming ever more complicated, until it can't be certain that it still is what it once was. It may not even be sure what it is now. That's the state of these family members as they gather in Austin. It's a state you may find easy to relate to this Christmas – and every other day of the year.
Christmas in Austinby Benjamin Markovits
Faber & Faber, 320 pp., $25.95