Jane Vandenburgh

Books » Failure to Zigzag

failure-cover-small Continuously in print since its first publication in 1989, Jane Vandenburgh’s first novel tells the story of Charlotte Black, growing up fatherless in a crazy family. Set in Southern California in the 1960s, the book paints a portrait of Charlotte’s mother, Katrinka Ainsworth, carnival ventriloquist and mental patient.

Charlotte is being raised by her grandparents, Lionel and Winnie, who are technically sane but exhibit all the gaudy eccentricities the girl has come to expect of anyone she is in anyway related to. Her most true spiritual ancestor, she feels, is the father she never got to know, Joseph Black, who died before she was born.

According to family lore, he was killed in the sinking of the Indianapolis in the last days of World War Two, as the ship steamed home from delivering the uranium for the bombs that would be used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nearly a thousand men were killed in what remains the worst naval disaster involving a single ship in U.S. history. The event was further complicated by the odd reaction of the government who then tried the ship’s captain—one of the few to live through the days and nights of drifting on life nets in one of the most remote parts of the Pacific—when he returned, going to the extremes of bringing the captain of the Japanese submarine that torpedoed the ship to Washington to testify against him.

Because—as Charlotte knows from her detailed, even obsessive investigation of the incident—someone must be blamed and held accountable in the public mind. The captain was charged with “failure to zigzag in anticipation of moonbeams,” a charge the Navy invented in order to have some reason to court martial him. This charge, Charlotte feels, is actually code for his real guilt, which is the crime—like hers—of survival.

This is the story of Charlotte’s coming to terms with her own version of the truth, as well as integrating that of her mother, in which Katrinka insists no one is to go by any of the versions that have that “died in the war” kind of crap in them, since the Powers That Be, according to Katrinka, wouldn’t allow Charlotte’s father to participate in their crappy war.

This is Charlotte Black’s story entwined with that of her mother: one succumbs to madness while the other decides to practice sanity as a form of revenge.



“Charlotte, the teenaged narrator of Jane Vandenburgh’s splendid first novel is trying hard not to grow up crazy. Her mother, Katrinka, is a mental patient virtually by profession: that carnival banner announcing her ventriloquism act reads ‘Katrinka L.W. Ainsworth, M.P.” Meanwhile, Charlotte’s grandmother Winnie, who is raising her, break into screaming frenzies and throws turpentine, or frozen turkey, when life demands too much.

“Vandenburgh’s deeper subject is the underbrush of Charlotte’s imagination, in which clashing emotions eventually find their own peaceable kingdom. Craziness and poignancy make risky turf for a novelist – they so easily end up looking picturesque – but Vandenburgh’s prose is bright and honest and it triumphs. Failure to Zigzag introduces a writer of great daring and skill to match.” Laura Shapiro, Newsweek

“Jane Vandenburgh’s Failure to Zigzag is a remarkable first novel. From beginning to end it’s written with great authority – there are no false steps here, no feeble gestures toward what other people might consider good writing. The dark material is treated entirely without melodrama or sentimentality; humor, if anything, is the prevailing tone, though it is an earned, wise humor, not a wise-cracking, mocking kind. And the mother, Katrinka Ainsworth, is one of the great characters of modern American fiction.” Wendy Lesser, The Threepenny Review

“Vandenburgh reveals not only her understanding of the extremes of human behavior but her prodigious facility with precise witty language. Her character convince us again of how we sometimes find the courage to feel other people’s pain and to forgive our own.” The Chicago Tribune

“Superb!” The New York Times Book Review

“Electrifying…so funny, so smart and so well-crafted, there’s almost too much to praise.” The Philadelphia Inquirer

“As affecting as it is astonishing.” The Los Angeles Times