In the middle of reading Belly I had the uneasy thought that Lisa Selin Davis, a woman I have never met, had written the story of my father’s life. Belly O’Leary, the main character, returns home to Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. Belly served four years in jail for taking bets in his bar, an ironic crime considering the proximity of the famous racetrack and the plethora of OTB outlets scattered throughout New York. You can place a bet, you just can’t do it in a bar.
Belly’s reentry ordeal rivals anything NASA might offer a returning astronaut. Belly cannot and will not accept the diminished state of his life, his prospects, or his hometown. His daughter, Nora, his probation officer, grandkids, ex-wife, and mysterious mistress Loretta form an archipelago of failure, living reminders of Belly’s shortcomings as a person, a father and husband. Through epic bouts of drinking Belly darkly pursues the ghost of his third daughter long since dead. He is certain that Loretta will return to him, flush with their loot from the bookmaking, lifting him from the grasp of big box employment, the straight life, a nightmare of routine and regimen too harrowing to consider.
The author lets Belly run, but always keeps the hook in his mouth, his hopes and schemes, and the rage that fuels him. “Are you through ruining my party yet?” his grandson asks after a disaster at a confirmation party. The boy asks the question that everyone wants the answer to, certainly Nora whose house is the eye of the storm. Though exiled to the attic Belly prefers passing out on the living room couch, where he is discovered by family members the morning after. Belly is as startled as they are by the dimensions of his predicament. Only Loretta, the woman of his dreams, can release him from delusions of restoration, from the notion that time has stood still pending his release from jail. Equipped with memories both vivid and highly suspect, Belly weaves a universe of possibilities. When reality intrudes, he is forced to acknowledge that the idealized past was not much better than the dismal present.
Ms. Davis wraps things up with a metaphorical reference to a childhood trauma, one that is appropriate to the circumstance. Belly is a superb novel, one I highly recommend.