after the parade
Sensitive, bighearted, and achingly self-conscious, forty-year-old Aaron Englund long ago escaped the confines of his Midwestern hometown, but he still feels like an outcast. After twenty years under the Pygmalion-like care of his older partner Walter, Aaron at last decides it is time to take control of his own fate. But soon after establishing himself in San Francisco—where he moves between a shoddy garage apartment and the ramshackle ESL school where he teaches—Aaron sees that real freedom will not come until he has made peace with his memories of Mortonville, Minnesota: a cramped town whose four hundred souls form the constellation of Aaron’s childhood heartbreaks and hopes.
After Aaron’s father died, it was the larger-than-life misfits of his childhood—a sardonic, wheelchair–bound dwarf named Clarence; a generous, obese baker named Bernice; a kindly aunt preoccupied with dreams of The Rapture—who served as Aaron’s allies. But Aaron’s sense of rejection runs deep: when Aaron was seventeen, Dolores, his mother, vanished one night. And when, all those years later, a new friend in San Francisco offers Aaron a way to locate his lost mother, his past and present collide, forcing him to rethink his place in the world.
In the tragicomic spirit of John Irving’s and Elizabeth Strout’s finest novels, Lori Ostlund’s debut is an openhearted contemplation of how we grow up and move on, how we can turn our deepest wounds into our greatest strengths. Written with wit and bursting with vitality, After the Parade is a glorious new anthem for the outsider.
“After the Parade is remarkable both for the clarity and precision of Lori Ostlund’s writing and her seemingly clairvoyant empathy for the misfits of the world: the different, the foreign, the gay, the bullied, the lonely. Aaron Englund is one of the most lovable, quietly heroic protagonists in recent memory, and Ostlund is a gem of a writer.” – Kate Christensen
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A middle-aged man leaves his partner of more than 20 years for an uncomfortable new life, where he’s forced to confront the nuances of his past in this debut novel by Flannery O’Connor Award-winning Ostlund (The Bigness of the World, 2009). Realizing he’s no longer in love with Walter—a man he’s known and been with for almost his entire adult life—Aaron Englund packs his bags, leaves their Albuquerque home in the middle of the night, and drives to San Francisco. There, he lives in a garage beneath a warring couple, teaches at a dilapidated ESL school, and plumbs deep wells of his own memories: the death of his abusive father, a police officer who fell from a lurching parade float; a childhood in an isolated Minnesota town with his ghostlike mother; and the many souls he encountered in his odd, solitary youth. The narrative departs from his present life in small doses and large swaths, carrying the reader through levels of narration—Aaron recounting his past, Aaron reliving his past, Aaron in his past listening to a story of someone else’s past. The building blocks of this novel are anecdotes, in all of their illuminating, messy glory. Everything here aches, from the lucid prose to the sensitively treated characters to their beautiful and heartbreaking stories. As for Aaron’s flashbacks, they are winding toward a kind of reveal, a moment of personal history he’s dancing around throughout, but it is not treated as the single key to his psyche; rather, it’s one more story that needs to be told alongside all the others. An example of realism in its most potent iteration: not a neatly arranged plot orchestrated by an authorial god but an authentic, empathetic representation of life as it truly is.
Booklist (starred review)
“In her appealing debut, prizewinning short story writer Ostlund writes with acuity and refreshing honesty about the messy complexity of being a social animal in today’s world…Touching and often hilarious…Ostlund captures a child’s viewpoint impeccably: the awkwardness, the amusing misunderstandings of adults’ actions and conversations, and his unusual friendships with fellow misfits. Forming connections isn’t necessarily easier when you’re grown up, as the novel compassionately illustrates, but it’s worth getting up the courage to try.”
Written over the course of 15 years, Ostlund’s debut novel (after the Flannery O’Connor Award–winning collection The Bigness of the World) follows a broken and empty man who embarks on a six-month journey to make sense of his past, in hopes of comfortably inhabiting his present. After 20 years cradled in the care of the older, stifling Walter, 40-year-old Aaron strikes out from the Midwest for better horizons in San Francisco. Yet when he settles into his new routine—teaching ESL to a ragtag group of foreigners and living in a studio apartment inside a garage owned by a perpetually squabbling couple—he finds it’s as unfulfilling as the one he left behind in New Mexico. On a sentence-by-sentence level, Ostlund’s prose is unmatched—smart, resonant, and imbued with beauty…
“Lori Ostlund’s wonderful novel After the Parade should come with a set of instructions: Be perfectly still. Listen carefully. Peer beneath every placid surface. Be alive to the possibility of wonder.” –Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Empire Falls
In Ostlund’s debut novel, following her multiaward-winning collection The Bigness of the World, it’s clear that Aaron has always been lonely. When we first meet him, he has just finished packing a U-Haul for a move to San Francisco, leaving long-term partner Walter with little more than a list of personal items to announce his departure. Clearly, he’s not good at goodbyes. The parade of the title, which changed Aaron’s life at age five, was an ordinary event with fire trucks and Shriners on bicycles until his abusive father fell off a float and died instantly. Not long after the funeral Aaron relocates with his mother to a small Minnesota community, where she takes over the local diner. For a while they live quiet if isolated lives, though Aaron isn’t popular and remains an outsider. Then, as a teenager, he meets Walter on a fishing trip and after graduating from high school leaves town with him to attend college. VERDICT A thread of melancholy runs through this affecting novel, which alternates chapter by chapter between past and present. At its heart, it’s about Aaron discovering his independence and learning who he is when there is no one else to define him. Recommended for all fiction readers. —Pamela Mann, St. Mary’s Coll. Lib., MD
“After the Parade is about leave-taking and homecoming, two instrumental actions that shape the life of every one of us. So rare does one see a wise writer like Lori Ostlund. Her insight comes from understanding her characters yet not dissecting them with a mental scalpel, and portraying life with its most complex and wondrous dynamics in time and space rather than inventing a static canvas. A new talent to celebrate!”
“As full-bodied and full-blooded a novelas I’ve read in a long time. The prose sparkles, and the author is so smart and so kind to her characters: a rare combination and so refreshing to read.”
Megan Mayhew Bergman
“Ostlund’s After the Parade is a generous and full-bodied novel, insightful and quietly provocative. Ostlund gives us characters we believe in and ache for, and she renders them with generosity and sparkling complexity. A confident, moving meditation on home and the construction, and reconstruction, of adult lives.”
He passed the house of the old woman who, on many nights, though not this one, watched for him from her kitchen window and then hurried out with a jar that she could not open. She called him by his first name and he called her Mrs. Trujillo, since she was surely twice his age, and as he twisted the lid off a jar of honey or instant coffee, they engaged in pleasantries, establishing that they were both fine, that they had enjoyed peaceful, ordinary days, saying the sorts of things that Aaron had grown up in his mother’s café hearing people say to one another. As a boy, he had dreaded such talk, for he had been shy and no good at it, but as he grew older, he had come to appreciate these small nods at civility.
Of course, Mrs. Trujillo was not always fine. Sometimes, her back was acting up or her hands were numb. She would hold them out toward him, as though the numbness were something that could be seen, and when he put the jar back into them, he said, “Be careful now, Mrs. Trujillo. Think what a mess you’d have with broken glass and honey.” Maybe he made a joke that wasn’t really funny, something about all those ants with bleeding tongues, and she would laugh the way that people who are very lonely laugh, paying you the only way they know how. She always seemed sheepish about mentioning her ailments, sheepish again when he inquired the next time whether she was feeling better, yet for years they had engaged in this ritual, and as he passed her house that last night, he felt relief at her absence. Still, when he let his mind stray to the future, to the next night and the one after, the thought of Mrs. Trujillo looking out the window with a stubborn jar of spaghetti sauce in her hands made his heart ache.
A modified version of Chapter 2 of the novel was published in The Common under the title “Leaving Walter.”