Jack Gorse is a complicated man. The particularity of his nature is revealed in the book’s opening paragraph as he describes an episode of curdled cream in his self-serve coffee—an episode that led him forever after to drink his coffee black and obsessively double check each time he fills his cup.
We soon learn that he is also facing eviction from a rent-controlled apartment in New York City, an apartment he has illegally inhabited for years following the death of a similarly named uncle. The slow, cold war of attrition that ensues leaves Jack the only remaining tenant, and the architect hired to oversee the project his only human contact.
The ever unfolding layers of Jack’s personality reveal a man both intelligent and oddly naïve, shy and slyly voyeuristic, cunning and emotionally guileless. He is a fascinating man. He is also a quiet man, but even though this story is a first-person narrative, I would hesitate to label it a quiet book. The Understory crackles with the energy of compulsion and unrequited obsession that is slowly and meticulously revealed in a way that could be called meditative (for its gradually deepening understanding), except for the fact that Jack fails miserably at meditation. No, the true genius in the storytelling here is that Jack reveals his deepest self, without actually revealing his deepest self. He simply recounts, while we see what he cannot.
In fact, it’s this continual dichotomous tendency that serves up the book’s delicious tension. Gorse is beset by a stubborn ennui that plays against a dramatic narrative backdrop of eviction notices, narrowly escaped fires, and a culminating scene of violence that is as sudden and unexpected as it is dramatically right.
The Understory is a book that relentlessly and incrementally pulls you forward on intelligent tenterhooks till you slap against a conclusion that resonates long after the turning of the final page.