Sunday, August 22, 2010

Why Everything Matters!

Ron Currie, Jr.’s, Everything Matters! is the first old-fashioned “you’ll-laugh-you’ll-cry” book I’ve read in a long time. What could be more laughable or more cryable than a novel about the absurdity of the human condition, tricked out to fit Junior Thibodeau? Junior is born hearing a God-like voice that lets him in on all sorts of secrets, like the ultimate demise of Earth as we know it, by comet, about 36 years after his birth. Oh, heavy burden.

The wonder of Everything Matters! is that Currie makes the story, which includes mini-apocalypses, both fun and believable by letting his characters – including the slightly officious nearly omnipotent voice that informs Junior of everyone’s destruction – narrate the novel. The book’s polyphony shows how well Currie hears voices, too. Junior speaks about coping (or not) with his knowledge. Junior’s girlfriend, Amy, talks about Junior. My favorite narrator is Junior’s older brother, a superlative baseball player whose childhood cocaine addiction causes brain damage; the transcripts of his answers to his badgering therapist’s questions demonstrate his loyalty to his brother. Junior’s father, a laconic Mainer, talks about Vietnam, his family, and working in a bakery.

Currie uses plot details to connect their narrations, giving the novel a sense of continuity. Even more impressive, Currie infuses the title message with surprising freshness and emotion by showing how much Junior and his family care about each other, despite (or because of?) their difficulties. Though the book’s message sounds simplistic, Currie piles up moments, memories, and actions to create Junior’s personal microcosm of the “everything” in the title, without letting the novel feel too magpie-ish or cute. He even gives cameo appearances to real people, notably Ted Willams and Maine senator Olympia Snowe.

I think Everything Matters! works because the book feels so sincere and even traditional. Currie shows fantastic patience and balance: there’s plenty of alienation but he accentuates the positive sides of relationships instead of estrangement, and a twist toward the end says loads about the choices we make and our perceptions of the lives we live. The novel also has an authenticity I appreciate. Currie, a native Mainer, works in details of Maine life that show grittiness and dignity without letting the Thibodeau family’s problems descend into depressing naturalism or annoying quirkiness. Despite the prophesy, alcoholism, cocaine, and lack of money.

Currie’s work in progress, from which he read a few weeks ago at Longfellow Books in Portland, also seems to demonstrate an ability to balance interesting form with an emotional, very human story. I can’t wait to read it. (But please! Take your time, Ron!) I probably have a couple years to check out Currie’s debut book, God Is Dead, a collection of stories that won the Young Lions Fiction Award from the New York Public Library. Everything Matters! won a 2010 Alex Award from the American Library Association and is being translated into many languages.

I’ve limited details in this post not because of a grand quest for blandness but because I was glad I didn’t know too much about Everything Matters! before I read it. If you want to read a very positive review and don’t mind knowing more, here’s Janet Maslin’s review from The New York Times. I think it qualifies as a rave.

Up next: Akira Yoshimura’s spare Shipwrecks and Daphne Kalotay’s Russian Winter.

Most intriguing review of the week: Murray Bail’s The Pages, here, in The New York Times Book Review. I enjoyed Bail’s Eucalyptus years ago and am interested in this take on Australia and philosophy.

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