The unreliable narrator is one of the harder tricks to pull off well in a novel, with its constraints on the writer to convey the story by telling a...

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“The Testing of Luther Albright”
by MacKenzie Bezos
Fourth Estate, 239 pp., $23.95

The unreliable narrator is one of the harder tricks to pull off well in a novel, with its constraints on the writer to convey the story by telling a subjective or incomplete version of it. In her first novel, Seattle author MacKenzie Bezos offers up Luther Albright, a middle-aged father who works so hard to avoid being like his father with his only child that he comes across as, well, somewhat like his father.

A civil engineer for the California Department of Water Resources, Albright is a bright but pedantic man, much more attracted to the details of the house he designed and built to withstand earthquakes than to emotional give-and-take with his wife and 15-year-old son, Elliot.

Elliot is assigned to research and write the biography of a relative for school, and he chooses Luther’s father. With every question Elliot asks about his grandfather, Luther perceives a crucial decision about whether his coughing up an emotional reaction to his own life’s experiences will help or hinder his child. Luther’s feelings erupt in response to Elliot’s questions; and we are meant to infer that his emotional blockages will affect everyone in his family.

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MacKenzie Bezos


The author of “The Testing of Luther Albright” will read at these area locations:

• At 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).

• At 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Village Books in Bellingham (360-671-2626; www.villagebooks.com).

• At 3 p.m. Aug. 28 at Queen Anne Books (206-283-5624).

• At 7 p.m. Aug. 31 at Seattle’s University Book Store (206-634-3400; www.ubookstore.com).

In “The Testing of Luther Albright,” the joyless protagonist anticipates every conversation with co-workers and even the hardware-store owner as a potential trap. Some of these exchanges are well-executed, but the insecurities of Luther Albright are neither moving nor stimulating. Just as his “issues” are given too much heft for their significance, the imagery can be heavy-handed. As Luther is about to make an imprudent comment by phone to a suspicious reporter, he is overlooking a freeway with traffic swerving to avoid a prone dog. Get it? Road kill!

Bezos is a meticulous writer, but her novel suffers from a suffocating focus on a narrator whose precise calibrations of insult and loss are, whether reliable or not, insufficiently compelling.