Reviewed by Phillip Mandel
Kudos to Kevin Sampsell for having the guts to write about premature ejaculation, watching your girlfriend’s brother beat off, and sniffing your mom’s panties. If I were the author, I’d probably make sure that the word “novel” was in all caps and in a font size at least as large, if not larger, than my name. But it appears that Sampsell has already written a memoir, so I assume that the embarrassing anecdotes that pepper This Is Between Us are fiction. Either way, these excruciating passages represent the book’s central tenants: that is, “love” – indefinable as it may be – allows you to be vulnerable with your loved one, and that you need not be ashamed of your past predilections, however sordid they may be.
The book isn’t so much of a novel, though, as it is a disembodied love letter (disembodied because, though the couple ostensibly live in Portland, the town itself doesn’t figure much into their lives; they could just as well be living in Brooklyn or Austin or any other hipster neighborhood). It is a long exposition of a five-year relationship; a taking-stock of, if you will, from the unnamed narrator to his unnamed girlfriend, both recently divorced and both bringing along a preteen kid to their romance. And once the reader becomes accustomed to the strange epistolary second-person/first-person point of view, the quiet power and sweetness of the words bring you in easily and firmly.
Sampsell is remarkably effective at evoking small, intimate moments in vivid, realistic detail: “If I flipped over and put my back to you in bed, I called this ‘cooking the other side.’ I called it this because I imagined myself as a big piece of meat on a grill.” The reader is continually impressed by the author’s powers of observation and his ability to produce such realism, though sometimes Sampsell seems to be showing off. He doesn’t need to.
The dialogue shines throughout, though very occasionally you’ll encounter here and there some clunky, obvious, and trying-too-hard jokes, which mar the otherwise genuinely strong, interesting, and realistic conversations. The author’s intrusion – get a load of this one! he seems to be saying – is distracting and unnecessary, because so much of the dialogue is so strong . An example is in the conversation between the narrator and his girlfriend’s brother Daniel, who explains the agony of forbidden love with a man who is married (to a woman); Daniel continues to buy gifts for the man, even though the man is unable to bring them home:
“Instead of being with this man, I would be with his things,” Daniel told me. “You’re lucky you don’t have to hide anything like that.”
“Did it make the gifts seem less sweet?” I asked him.
Another example of great dialogue is this perfectly-constructed, convoluted conversation through the bathroom door that can only happen between two people in a relationship (the narrator’s girlfriend is reading a letter from her aunt in the bathroom):
You came out [of the bathroom] and asked me impatiently to look up a word in the dictionary for you.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Rancor,” you said.
I thumbed through our paperback dictionary. “It says: Bitter, long-lasting resentment.” I closed the book and looked up. You were back in the bathroom already. “Wait a second,” I said. “Use it in a sentence.”
You didn’t reply.
“Why do you need to know that word?” I asked through the door.
“Oh, nothing,” you said.
“Are you okay in there?”
“Tell Lydia I said hello.”
Thus, the text is uneven. Between poetic moments and evocative, lifelike details (“I want to wear you like a bear suit”) are passages of weak writing: “this really cool retro arcade,” or, “you looked amazing in your vintage bikini.”
Then there are the anecdotes that come and go, but are glossed over so quickly as to become non-sequiturs, or worse, meaningless asides: a threesome with a friend, an observed teenage rape. These stories-within-stories are not explored, nor is the impact that they have on the characters. Rather, it feels like the author catalogued some interesting experiences he’d lived through, or heard about, or imagined, and wanted to somehow get them into the text of the novel. I suppose if I’d participated in a threesome, I’d want everyone to know about it, too. But in the context of a serious relationship, I’d imagine that a threesome would be a defining moment – or at least have a far larger impact – than simply “it made us stronger,”and would warrant more than just four paragraphs and a pithy, too-clean wrap-up: “We stayed friends with Janelle for a year or so, but we never really grew to love her. She eventually moved away without telling us.” What? We never grew to love her? Nowhere else in the book does the relationship ever come close to polyamory or some kind of open-relationship status, other than the narrator’s ongoing – and unexplained – flirtartion with his girlfriend’s brother. What if they had grown to love this other woman? Why was that even an option?
What about the one paragraph about possibly being molested as a child? Comes and goes, never to be brought up again.
And though the chosen style of this novel compels the narrator to reminisce minimalistically and then move on, I wanted to learn more about the psychology behind these events – which I guess is a testament to the the author’s ability to draw in the reader quickly and effectively.
Some of the most poignant moments in the book are the scenes with the narrator’s son, Vince. The narrator has trouble connecting with Vince, and I’d have preferred the author excise some of the inexplicable passages mentioned previously and build more tension as the narrator struggles with being a father. Their children complicate but enrich their relationship, and to me, that is real life, and compelling.
So what is the story about? In terms of plot, it’s a guy recounting to his girlfriend the trajectory of their relationship and ancillary anecdotes about their lives. As mentioned previously, some of these anecdotes seem to be trying to do more work than they actually do, as if to round out the characters or explain their behavior (which doesn’t work because they aren’t explored and developed fully). But the theme of the book is love. It’s about two people who love each other so much that they literally push each other apart, but are compelled to return to each other and try to work it out. It’s a beautiful description of love, of what it does to people, and how people navigate their feelings. And though the novel ultimately fails to tell us why the characters love each other – perhaps these two people are just meant to be together – we definitely feel that they do. The book doesn’t define what love is, but it depicts what being in love is like. And, there’s a whole lot of fucking in there, too.
On every page and in every vignette, Sampsell crafts masterful sentences, one after another – and in itself, this is no small feat – he has a tremendous amount of talent. But with a bit more editing, a bit more trust in himself, and, if he tackles more difficult subject matter – go deep, man! – he will produce a truly great work of fiction that people will talk about for years to come.