Belle Boggs is a witty, incisive writer, and The Gulf, her first novel, deftly satirizes everything from for-profit schools to the MFA industrial complex, American liberals and conservatives, and the hypocrisies of both sides ... These are fully realized characters, each with their own weaknesses and worries ... Scores of recent books, of every genre, have attempted to bridge the looming gulf in American culture and politics. It’s to Boggs’ credit that she doesn’t ... For all the satire, Boggs’ novel is also deeply felt, and moving. Perhaps its greatest strength is Boggs’ delicate, hard-won sympathy for her characters, and the sympathy they develop for one another.
Boggs is as inspired by our faith in reinvention as she is intrigued by the hubris that it permits, that tempts us by asking: Why not burn ourselves up if we can always be born again, or at least write a book about it? ... It’s a brilliant concept that skewers parts of the Writers Workshop Industrial Complex, certain strains of American Christianity, and the myth of meritocracy. But Boggs only partially executes it, largely because of the unwieldy structure of the book, which may have been more effective as a set of interconnected short stories. Several different characters’ interior worlds slide across these pages, competing for the reader’s affection and allegiance, introducing story lines that ultimately feel cheaply concluded and lessons that don’t justify the trauma that paid for them ... interesting premise peters out into puffs of clichés. By the final chapters, The Gulf feels perfunctory, reading like hastily fleshed-out scripts for a miniseries about atheists and Christians living together in a Sarasota motel. Given that much of the book is dialogue—clever and readily transferable to a screen—I wonder if this was Boggs’s intention, one that iterated into this erratic but generally enjoyable and often funny novel. While it didn’t leave me Born Again, it killed me with laughter more than once.
With this scarily plausible setup, Boggs nails the launching point for her satire of for-profit education and the unholy links between manipulation, money, and writing. But The Gulf is more than just a witty parody: Boggs uses the Ranch as a lens through which to examine our fractured country, where the inability to allow for ambivalence keeps us separated by a gulf. In Boggs’s ultimately redemptive novel, it is language—poetry—that bridges that gulf ... Boggs convincingly makes the case that the writing workshop can breed empathy ... Boggs gives Marianne more meaty matters to work out than will-she-or-won’t-she get back together with Eric—her primary dilemma before the students arrive—and thus lends The Gulf real depth ... Boggs makes us question who is worth signaling, and how.