The War for Gloria by Atticus Lish review – Mother’s little helper and Father’s foe

The biographical note to Atticus Lish’s 2015 debut, Preparation for the Next Life , lost no time answering the question: yes, he is the son of “legendary writer and editor” Gordon Lish , whose noted severity with a blue pencil made Raymond Carver a byword for minimalism. Yet Lish Jr’s other credentials were nearly as unique: in place of the usual creative writing degree and magazine credits, he listed past jobs as a removal man, builder, factory worker, security guard and (briefly) a marine. The novel itself tugged against literary trends too: outward facing, without a writer-adjacent protagonist in sight, it told of the thwarted romance between a homeless Iraq veteran and an undocumented Uyghur refugee down and out in post-9/11 New York. His equally formidable new novel likewise draws power from plunging into lives most writers ignore. Set largely over four years in mid-00s Boston, it follows Corey, who drops out of high school in his late teens to earn money and keep house after his mother, Gloria, is struck at 40 by a degenerative nerve disease. Their plight spares him none of the regular coming-of-age yearnings and the gut-level dread that hangs over the book lies not only in the steady creep of Gloria’s symptoms, but in our dawning sense that Corey is looking in all the worst possible places for help figuring himself out.

For a start, there’s his uneasy friendship with another student, Adrian, a body-building Nietzsche fanatic interested in explosives and what he unironically declares “the problem of women”. Closer to home, there’s his estranged father, Leonard, a security guard who drifts back into Gloria’s orbit in the wake of her diagnosis, but seemingly to sponge rather than help. When she falls over while navigating public transport – because Leonard has gone awol with her car – it’s the first round in a simmering father-son feud that gives Lish’s title one of the meanings it accrues over the course of the novel.

Lish’s third-person narration unfolds mostly from Corey’s perspective with occasional dips into other points of view, as well as the odd nudge to hint that everything is being recounted from a regretful vantage point decades hence. Brisk, vivid scenes chart the boy’s foiled attempts to rise to his predicament, whether fending off spiralling healthcare bills with zero-hours construction gigs or lancing his anger with jiu-jitsu training (the source of some of the novel’s most compelling scenes). Pressure grows when Gloria finds she can’t type or hold a fork – signs of more painful trials to come – but another fuse is lit, too, when Corey asks himself why Leonard, obsessed with a decades-old unsolved murder, walks around with police issue handcuffs, to say nothing of a holdall full of knives.

We know right from the start where this gruelling story must go, yet in Lish’s universe even death brings no respite: any glimmer of release only ever heralds just another tightening of the screw. You can’t look away: what begins as a pulverising portrait of the financial and emotional jeopardy of terminal illness morphs, by the end, into a gothically horrific tale of predatory manipulation. That Lish keeps you nothing but rapt by his last-gasp gear change (nigh on unbearably grim, be warned), is, I suspect, just one of many signs that in years to come he’ll be spoken of as a legendary writer entirely on his own account.