We’re All Damaged: A Novel

werealldamaged_334_499“Have you ever stopped and asked yourself, ‘What’s the worst possible place I could be right now?’ It’s 11:36 p.m. (central standard time), and that’s exactly where I am.”

The place is Nebraska, and Andy Carter, the luckless protagonist in Matthew Norman’s terrific new novel, We’re All Damaged, isn’t thrilled to be back, especially since he’s been doing okay in the Big Apple. True, he’s a subpar bartender, his first blind date in forever stands him up, and his semi-feral cat, Jeter, can’t decide whether to sit in his lap or slash his Achilles.

But all things considered, Gotham beats the hell out of Omaha, the place where, a year earlier, Andy’s then-wife, Karen, announced she wanted a divorce during what he now thinks of as the Great Applebee’s Massacre.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Andy explains. “I’m not a snob. I don’t have a problem with Applebee’s per se. But I think we can all agree, as a civilized society, that lives shouldn’t change there.”

Yet, not only did his life change, but in the intervening months, everyone else’s has, too. His beloved grandpa is dying (hence Andy’s urgent trip home); his mother, Nancy — a local radio-talk-show host — is way too thin, blonde, and right-wing now that Fox News is courting her for the big leagues; his retired-accountant father spends an unreasonable amount of time picking off backyard squirrels with a paintball gun; and his successful older brother, Jim, is still kind of a dick.

Then there’s the Gestapo-like rent-a-cop who prowls Andy’s parents’ new McMansiony neighborhood in a golf cart, ruthlessly enforcing HOA violations; the Glitter Mafia, a group of activists who blanket Nancy’s lawn with sex dolls, dildos, and Teletubbies (the gay one) in hopes of getting her to dial down her vocal stance against same-sex marriage; and the fact that a buddy posted a clip of Andy puking at his best friend’s wedding, punching the groom’s father in the face, and then crashing a car.

On the bright side, BuzzFeed named the resulting “Worst Best Man…Ever!!!!” video the sixth-biggest wedding fail of all time, so Andy’s got that going for him.

All in all, things are proceeding about as he expected. But then Daisy shows up. As is wont to happen in breezy, playful novels — this is an observation, not a criticism — the quixotic, beddable deus ex fuckina swoops in, says and does all the right things to pull Andy at least partly out of his funk, and rattles the supporting cast just enough to keep things interesting.

But what’s Daisy’s connection to Andy’s grandfather? Why does she tell staffers at the hospice that she’s Andy’s sister? Who is she really?

Who cares? Matthew Norman has written a funny, likable novel with a funny, likable protagonist — someone you’ll root for even as you cringe at the things he does. (Let those among us who’ve never flung an ice-cream float at our ex’s house in the middle of the night cast the first stone.)

Surprisingly poignant in places, We’re All Damaged is a perfect summertime (or anytime) read: the story of a thirtysomething Everyman who never quite gives up on his better angels in spite of the universe conspiring to make him do otherwise.

“She kisses me on the cheek,” Andy recalls of saying goodbye to Daisy before heading back to New York. “‘Go home, Andy Carter,’ she says. ‘Shake it up. Start all over again. You’re ready.’”

Despite his dysfunctional family, spotty love life, and history of existential face-plants, he is.

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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Thomas Murphy: A Novel

thomasmurphy“The park is gray and I am blue, thinking about how long it takes to live a life, and what do you wind up with? Age. People say it’s unseemly to feel sorry for yourself, but I enjoy feeling sorry for myself. Who else would feel sorry for me?”

So ponders poet Thomas “Murph” Murphy in one of the countless rhetorical ramblings that populate Roger Rosenblatt’s disarming Thomas Murphy. The beauty of this novella-slash-character-study-slash-longform-philosophical-musing is that Murph doesn’t really care if you feel sorry for him; he cares that he can make you squirm.

But just a little.

See, under his crotchety exterior, Irish expat Murph is a good guy. Sure he’ll needle into your doubts about God, but then he’ll buy you a slug of Jameson’s to help wash the uncertainty down.

Murph’s own worldview is fairly certain: Life is a long series of struggles and suffering, but at least you get to die at the end. That’s what happened to his wife, Oona, and best friend, Greenberg, both gone in the space of a year.

With his intelligence and wit, Murph is similar to Louis, the circumspect widower in Kent Haruf’s wonderful final novel, Ours Souls at Night. Yet whereas Haruf’s Louis offers spare, resonant insights, Rosenblatt’s Murph glories in full-on Joycean reveries and reminiscences. (Both men would make excellent drinking buddies, but the smart money would be on Louis to get you home by curfew.)

Left with his beloved adult daughter and worthy foil, Máire, and her young son, William, 72-year-old Murph is facing a possible Alzheimer’s diagnosis, eviction from his rent-controlled apartment, and an existential choice of sorts: fling himself headlong into the world of dementia, or keep writing poems, walking in Central Park with his grandson, torturing his long-suffering neurologist, and competing in an endless pissing contest with life.

They’re all so appealing, why choose just one?

DEAR MURPH, writes his daughter in an exchange of notes about his increasingly erratic behavior:

It occurs to me — your brooding mind being what it is — that you may think I’m trying to lock you up in the loony bin. I’m not. You probably ought to be locked up in the loony bin, but that condition long preceded your recent shenanigans. I’m concerned that you’ll harm yourself. It’s that simple.
Your dutiful and loving daughter,
Máire

Dear Dutiful and Loving,
I’m sorry, but I never had a daughter, and I don’t know anyone named Máire. My friend Greenberg used to sing about a table down at Morey’s. Is that you? Or are you the old gray
mare, who ain’t what she used to be? Ah, but who is?

Dear Murph,
Go fuck yourself.

Dear Máire,
Oh! Now I remember you.

And so it goes. You’ll find no scorching plotlines in Thomas Murphy, no sampler-worthy feel-goodisms (except for maybe, “They say that Irishmen drink to forget we’re Irish. I say we drink to remember we’re Irish”), and no stunning denouements.

Instead, what you get is a genuinely funny, likeable protagonist who parries with the Fates, his neighbors, and his no-good landlord while wryly taking measure of the world both real and imagined around him. Murph knows mortality always wins in the end, but there’s no reason you can’t kick it in the balls before the buzzer.

“You never crash if you go full tilt. It takes a kind of courage…my ma’s and da’s courage…and Oona’s, when she was certain she was doomed…The courage to gun it, even though you’re predetermined to fail. Because between that certainty and the attempt to refute it is life, boyo — dreadful, gorgeous life.”

And nobody gets out alive.

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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“Louisa Meets Bear” by Lisa Gornick

louisaCall a book “chick lit,” and you aren’t exactly paying it a compliment. Which is why I’m a little worried Lisa Gornick’s fantastic new novel-in-stories, Louisa Meets Bear, might be saddled with that label. Not only are the author and one of the titular characters women, there’s also a female face on the cover.

It’s enough to give a serious reader a case of the vapors.

But this is a seriously engaging book — one filled with fleshed-out, dynamic characters who pass in and out of each other’s lives over the course of decades. Some — like main protagonists Louisa and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, nicknamed Bear — make frequent appearances. Others show up once or twice, but manage to leave an impression no matter how few pages they inhabit.

This is surely thanks in part to Gornick’s work as a clinical psychologist. The New York City-based writer has a gift for capturing disparate voices and moods, and threading them together into an intelligent, sometimes fraught tapestry.

The sheer size of the cast — including Eric, Marnie, Sam, Corinne, Lily, Ilana, Sarah, Charlotte, Richard, Lena, Cubby, Penny, and Mr. Pryzwawa, to name more than a few — would derail a lesser writer. Yet Gornick doesn’t just firmly hold the reins, she paints each character with unique strokes.

While there are a few big, dramatic events — the sudden death of a child; an enraged, knife-wielding teen lunging at her mother — in the book, these eventually fade into the chorus; brief, biting notes in a extended symphony.

It’s the daily stuff of life — the exasperation, the absurdity, the making of the rent — that occupies most of the characters, just as in the real world. Pivotal moments, recalled years later, soften into memories. They’re not the thing that shapes us; they’re among the things relentlessly smoothing or sharpening us into who we become.

So when Yale undergraduate Lizzy, pregnant after an illicit night with a professor’s husband, carries the baby to term and then gives it up, she is sad but not scarred.

When the baby, grown into a 15-year-old named Brianna, trips on the cracks in her world during a Venice vacation, there’s no clichéd denouement with her adoptive parents on the Grand Canal. Instead, there’s a nod to the imperfect love that somehow endures despite the many ways in which we confound and disappoint one another.

And when Louisa, lying in bed with Bear early on, ponders her bond both with him and another man, Andrew, she does it with the recognition that there’s no one way things must play out.

“I think we could be Hansel and Gretel huddled under a tree. I think I am the wicked witch and you are Hansel trapped in my garden. Bound in the lock of your arms, I think you are the wicked witch and I am Gretel caught in your cage.”

Readers will be caught, too, by Gornick’s evocative storytelling skills. While some chapters resonate less than others — I still don’t know what to make of the well-rendered though odd vignette about a lonesome widow and a blind surgeon — even these offer a master class in character development.

Her observations, as well, are as whip-smart as they are occasionally biting. Decades after their initial coming together, Louisa again considers her doomed link with Bear.

“I can see why you came to hate me — I was using you, using you to feel better about myself — and why you had to get away from me. Your love for me left you feeling degraded, and you dug me out of you…like a dog scratching out a tick.”

And that wound, like so many in this book stanched by the passing of years, still hurts. But it no longer bleeds.

This post originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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Down with Homework!

Homework-MignanelliHomework: bad idea or really bad idea?

That’s a trick question. Homework is an awful idea.

Not only have take-home assignments been proven useless (here’s where I’d cite the appropriate studies if I weren’t in Rolling Stone mode), they’re contributing to the breakdown of the family. At least of my family.

Get within a five-mile radius of our place on most weeknights and listen for an indignant howl. That’s the sound of our eighth-grader railing against his teachers and the American education system in general. (His weekend rants center more on The Man.)

“They’re not in there!” he’ll yell, flinging his history textbook on the couch and slamming his spiral closed. “None of the words are in the book! This is so stupid!” Crumpled alongside him, invariably, is a handout entitled “Terms You Absolutely, Positively WILL Find in the Book.”

My son has a wee bit of trouble focusing. But still. He makes a valid point. This is stupid.

Parents have a tacit understanding with the school system: You keep our kids out of our hair for eight hours a day, and we won’t ask any questions. Common Core? Sure, whatever. Standardized testing? As long as my children don’t come home early.

Reams of meaningless activities designed to “reinforce skills” that must be completed once we’ve all clocked out for the evening? J’accuse, Frederick County Public Schools. J’accuse!

Now, if you’re one of those lucky moms or dads with kids who love all things classroom-related so much that they actually play school, move along. There’s nothing to see here.

If, on the other hand, you birthed the Omen, you understand.

When 9 p.m. rolls around, the only place I want to be is on the couch with a book. In a perfect world, the kids would be in bed asleep. In my world, at least one of them is frantically Googling the noble gases while shrieking about the tyranny of middle school.

It’s usually a minute or two later that he mentions the foam board and stencils required to complete the assignment. (By this point, I’m keying “retroactive birth control” into Bing.)

Now, some experts still insist that homework plays a vital role—that it compels students to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and apply it to tasks done outside of school; that it nudges them toward a deeper understanding of the material being taught and promotes self-reliance.

There’s a reason nobody invites experts to dinner.

There’s also a reason why the concept of homework is fundamentally flawed. Think about it. Do waiters practice reciting the day’s specials after they punch out? Do actuaries spend their free hours handicapping the neighbors’ chances of being eaten by Pomeranians? Methinks not.

So give kids a break. (And by “give kids a break,” I mean, “give parents a break.”) Abolish the worksheets. Just say no to mind-numbing, off-duty tasks.

And if you hear anything about that retroactive birth control? You know where to find me.

[Illustration by Matt Mignanelli.]

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Oh, the Injustice

Gorilla-Wine-MattOf all life’s unanswerable questions—how many stars in the sky; how much beta-carotene in a serving of John Boehner—none is as perplexing as this: Why can’t Marylanders buy beer and wine in the damn grocery store?

Did we defeat communism just to have Free-Staters forced into making multiple stops on their way home from work?

Apparently.

I’m from Ohio, and say what you will about the Buckeye State’s shortcomings—our casserole-based economy; the Cleveland Browns—we know that hardworking people deserve to buy their pinot and Pringles in the same place. (And presumably serve them at the same meal.)

It’s in the Constitution. Or so I assume.

But here in Maryland? That’s another story.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for the idea of wandering into the neighborhood wine shop—here’s looking at you, Viniferous—and chatting up the owner about the perfect Riesling to accompany tonight’s wilted greens and goat cheese salad. But that’s hardly how most of us do things.

If you’re a parent like me, your evenings go something like this. It’s a Tuesday night, and you’re having Froot Loops for dinner. Again. And you’re out of cat litter. Again. You can’t not go to the store (see “out of cat litter”), but you also can’t not get a bottle of wine to make life more bearable (see “Froot Loops”).

And you know what else you can’t do? Take care of it all in one place.

It’s like the terrorists have already won.

If Maryland’s lawmakers want to give back to us, the poor, over-taxed citizenry, all it needs to do is take its antiquated liquor-purchasing laws, slip them a roofie, and put them on a train back to the 19th century where they belong.

Speaking of the 1800s, many years ago my husband, Ben, our preschooler, and I went to Deep Creek Lake for a spur-of-the-moment overnight. Our tactical error? Going on a Sunday. Because of Garrett County’s draconian blue laws, the Sabbath-day sale of alcohol was verboten.

During what can only be described as a despondent meal at our hotel, the waiter explained the horrifying situation to us, and then proceeded to set up a booze-buying scheme worthy of “The Wire.”

“There’s an old phone booth down the road about a block away from here,” he explained under his breath, his eyes darting nervously. “If you give me some money, I can take a six-pack from the bar and leave it for you under the seat inside.”

Ben and I looked at each other, wondering at what point our impromptu getaway had turned into a drug buy.

Skeptical, but wary of spending a beer-free night holed up in a cramped room with our feral 3-year-old, we gave the waiter 10 bucks and then quickly exited before the feds descended.

An hour later, Ben walked to the appointed drop spot, and there was the stash. Er, Heineken. It was even chilled. He looked around before heading back to our hotel, half expecting to spot Stringer Bell in the shadows.

Which brings me back to today. The year 2015. Are we any closer to enjoying basic beer-and-wine-shopping conveniences here in the Free State?

Nope.

See that ad for Two-Buck Chuck at Trader Joe’s or that pallet of pinot on sale at Costco? Not here you don’t. In Maryland, we buy our drinks the old-fashioned way: by driving all over town and stopping at whichever liquor store doesn’t have our bad checks taped to the register.

Either that, or by flagging down a waiter from the Barksdale crew who can hook us up.

[This piece originally appeared in the Frederick Gorilla; illustration by Matt Mignanelli.]

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