The Understory

The Understory, originally published by Ironweed Press in 2007, was reissued by Tin House Books in April 2014.
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  • Winner of the Ironweed Press Fiction Prize
  • A Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist
  • A finalist for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing

From the publisher:
Set in New York City and in a Buddhist monastery in rural Vermont, The Understory is both a mystery and a psychological study and reveals that repression and self-expression can be equally destructive. Ex-lawyer Jack Gorse walls off his inner life with elaborate rituals and routines. Threatened with eviction from his longtime apartment and caught off-guard by an attraction to a near stranger, he takes steps that lead to the dramatic dissolution of the existence he's known.

“I am amazed and moved by Pamela Erens’s The Understory. It brings to mind (and stands up well next to) such literary ancestors as Hamsun's Hunger, or Beckett's stories of the evicted, but it is uniquely tender in its treatment of the isolated mind's quest to keep alive what is most radiant and most fragile in the face of the brutal catastrophe of reality. Erens brings extraordinary powers of empathy and technical mastery to the character of Jack Gorse—normally the person we pass on the street and, after a token moment of pity, attempt to forget as rapidly as possible. In this book there is no turning away from him, or more accurately and terribly, from the world as he perceives it.”
— Franz Wright, author of Walking to Martha's Vineyard (winner of the Pulitzer Prize) and Wheeling Motel

“This is a strange, haunting meditation on aloneness and the melancholy of frustrated love, written knowingly about a character bereft of self-knowledge. The language is precise and considered, the mood sustained, the effect at once narrative and poetic. A lovely, elegant debut novel.”
— Andrew Solomon, author of Far From the Tree (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award) and The Noonday Demon (winner of the National Book Award)

“A wonderfully controlled portrait of a contemporary Underground Man—a man who buries his life beneath the normal social interactions of modern-day Manhattan, so that what is inside of him might stay buried too.”
— Jonathan Dee, author of The Privileges (Pulitzer Prize finalist), Palladio, and A Thousand Pardons

“Pamela Erens’s The Understory is at once an exquisite portrait of a man driven by forces beyond his control, an homage to Manhattan's secret places, and a deftly braided narrative that keeps the reader hungry to find out what happens next.”
— Rilla Askew, author of Fire in Beulah (winner of the American Book Award) and Kind of Kin

“hauntingly abject . . . skillfully rendered . . . a sensitive, restrained debut.”
Publishers Weekly

“mesmerizing . . . a universal human cry for love.”
ForeWord Magazine

“an elegant, understated study of physical and psychic dislocations . . . artfully detailed and beautifully rendered.”
Chicago Tribune

"Erens’ focus on a solitary, disturbed man plays as a lyrical sleight-of-hand. For as her themes seamlessly double back and unify, she provokes greater questions—of what happens to those leading quiet lives when they refuse to change, and are pushed to the brink."
Kenyon Review Online   Read the full review

"Erens beautifully plays out the push and pull between Jack’s instinct to conceal his desires and his need to express his emotions.... All but the most cold-hearted readers will sympathize with Jack, root for him even when a positive outcome appears most unlikely."
PANK   Read the full review

“not your typical debut . . . . The soul of this novel is its meditative lyricism, rendered in language that is as exquisite as it is penetrating.”
Small Spiral Notebook

The Understory comes to a gripping finale. Erens . . . is a very talented writer, and this slender volume is a welcome addition to contemporary fiction.”
Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide

“This novel derives its power from Erens’ ability to create a character who is simultaneously repulsive and sympathetic . . . . [She has] given us insight into the very human desire to make this world—and our lives—matter.”
El Paso Times

“Pamela Erens’s novel is a letter bomb of a book, pulsing with savage potency.” 
The Elegant Variation   Read the full review/interview

“We have such a deep understanding of and sympathy for the engaging but troubled Jack that we willingly follow him into the dark corners of his wounded psyche.”
Rain Taxi

“In a book that begs for stellar acting in a cinematic treatment, the fascinated reader bears witness as events follow a collision course.”

"This is storytelling at its finest, lightest and most complex."
LitReactor   Read the full review

"Erens makes beautiful what is so painful."
The Cleaver   Read the full review

[The Understory] touch[es] on universal expressions of helplessness and alienation, of longing for what we cannot have . . . Erens [is] asking us how far we can push an emotional outcast until they unravel or explode."
New Pages   Read the full review

For more reviews, check out Goodreads.