By CARTER COLEMAN
A Defining Madness
Can a family anchored in Memphis and Baton Rouge find happiness in Nantucket or Santa Cruz? The Rutledge family traces a lineage to rural Tennessee, to a bend in the river near the Trail of Tears where the Cherokee were forcibly relocated west. Franklin Rutledge is an Episcopal minister; he and Margaret have three sons, Cage, Nick, and Harper. Nick dies young in the Berkeley hills; Cage, the oldest, drops out of Vanderbilt a few credits shy of an MBA. Where he goes from there forms the arc of the story; his family watches Cage the way the rest of us might watch a building burn to the ground alternating between horror and fascination.
The novel covers four decades of family history with the surviving Rutledges as point of view narrators. Nick’s death haunts them all, Cage in particular; to give credit to the skill of the author, it incites the story both as a condition precedent to the narrative and, eventually, and a significant plot point in the resolution.
Cage is bi-polar. His manic behavior on Nantucket leads to incarceration at an institution for the criminally insane; his most frequent visitor is Nick. Harper follows his brother north; almost ten years younger, Harper mimics his brother’s devotion to sex, drugs, and rocknroll without mental illness. As Cage deteriorates Harper becomes addicted to one night stands and fine bourbon. Harper becomes wealthy as a software designer in Manhattan; his offices are on the eighty-eighth floor of the World Trade Center.
Franklin becomes a bishop and tries to steer his family through the vapor trail Cage leaves in his wake; Margaret copes, prays, does the things expected of a wife and mother. As Cage passes through dark depressions and explosions of energy, her despair deepens. It seems the madness Cage inherited will unravel them all.
CAGE’S BEND follows the southern tradition, exploring each character’s place in the family and community; it breaks from that tradition by relocating the story north and west, but tethers everyone involved to those strong roots of the home soil. It suffers from the multiple point of view at times and the ending seems a little forced, but overall, this novel chronicles a long journey home with grace and power.