Love actually

Debut novel takes a comic, clear-eyed look at the way it is

A half century has past since the time of the male chauvinist world depicted in television’s “Mad Men.’’ A half century has past since the time of the male chauvinist world depicted in television’s “Mad Men.’’ (Frank Ockenfels/ AMC)
By Ted Weesner Jr.
Globe Correspondent / May 16, 2010

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In American fiction or, for that matter, American life, it can appear that men and women have stood on near equal footing for a good stretch. Hasn’t a solid half century elapsed since women were treated explicitly as inferiors, a la the chauvinist world of “Mad Men?’’ And yet as the canny critic Vivian Gornick has pointed out, you don’t have to page back very far to find this isn’t exactly the case. In the works of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and Andre Dubus, all celebrated chroniclers of married life, she locates a strain of unreality that, as she puts it, “leaves me with the taste of ashes in my mouth.’’

It’s not that these writers are outright sexist but that their portrayals of women — daughters, sisters, lovers, wives — are less than clear-eyed, that at the deepest root these characters exist not as they really are but as these male writers wish they were.

Thankfully, a good number of excellent novelists have been working in the interim to set the romantic record straight, most recently Drew Perry in his novel “This Is Just Exactly Like You.’’ At the conclusion of this precision portrait of men, women, marriage, parenthood, and love, one is certain not just to find their mouth ash-less, but to have gotten a sumptuous taste of how we live now.

Set in and around Perry’s stomping ground of Greensboro, N.C., the novel centers on thirty-something Jack Lang. His wife, Beth, has not only moved out but in with his best friend, Canavan, leaving Jack to tend to their 6-year-old, autistic son, Hendrick. In the vein of Carver et al, Jack is tenderhearted and confused, struggling to make sense of how his life has come apart. He runs a garden-supply company, Patriot Mulch & Tree, and has had the bad sense to buy the house across the street from his own, believing he can renovate it and turn a fast profit.

Problem is, he’s having a hard enough time keeping his own house in one piece. This, among not a few other of Jack’s unrealistic projects and aspirations, caused Beth to hightail it.

From this point forward we witness Jack trying and failing to get a handle on his own bewilderment. At first blush it’s tempting to characterize this vantage as stereotypically male, and yet the women in this novel wear their own varieties of alienation and befuddlement, albeit in shades of what an earlier generation would have designated classically male. It’s Jack’s wife who holds down the stressful (and more serious) job, she who leaves and first commits adultery, she who pounds on her husband’s face. Meanwhile, their efforts to communicate correspond, in the words of Gornick, with “the struggle so many women and so many men are waging now to make sense of themselves as they actually are.’’

If the novel’s world sounds a little circumspect, Perry brings it all to life in such remarkably pinpoint, hilarious, and convincing fashion that you revel in spending more than 300 pages here. It’s difficult to come across a sentence, let alone a word, that doesn’t smack tone-perfect and also refreshingly colloquial, candid, real. His quietly comic touch is equally consistent.

For example, when Jack recalls first meeting Beth: “Her lip was sweating. Her hair was tied up in something. She had barbecue sauce on her shirt. He liked all that.’’ Or weighing his indecision: “It’s the grand, flailing gesture, or it’s nothing. He thinks of it like ballast, sometimes. A good day on the yard mitigated by trying to fix the shower handles, and breaking them off in the wall in the process. He’s not hapless. He just makes certain of his calculations incorrectly. Gets excited. Forgets to carry the two.’’ Or when Canavan’s girlfriend hits on him. “He’s surprised enough, the requisite amount, the amount he’s always been when someone’s been willing to touch him on purpose.’’

As convincingly as Perry swift-paddles the perilous waters of love, he just as ably limns male camaraderie in all of its bantering rawness and fatherly parenting. These male activities are shot through with compulsory traces of cluelessness, both willed and actual. When Jack decides to buy the giant aquatic figurines offered by a putt-putt golf operation gone bankrupt and makes plans to lay them atop a figure-eight concrete racetrack he hopes to pour behind his house — all for his increasingly expressive son — the reader roots for and also fully comprehends the manic nuttiness of the gesture.

The question looms: Will Jack and Beth reconcile? The rough and tumble of men and women trying to make sense, eye-to-eye, toe-to-toe never leaves our view. The novel’s final collision spikes operatic. Tempers flare; flames lick; blood flows. The outcome may shock, but it’s also completely if uncomfortably plausible. Through everything we’ve been witness to, two human beings doing their best, worst, and everything in-between to get along. “This is all mine,’’ Jack thinks. “My house, my marriage, this mess of my own making. Whatever all this is, whatever else it is, it’s his. It belongs to him. He’s done it, he’s made it, he’s punched holes in it, he’s dug it up, he’s lit it on fire. It’s his. It has to be.’’ With this we’ve visited a world as nearly proximate to what really is, and one thankfully free of ash.

Ted Weesner Jr. is a writer in Somerville and teaches at Tufts University.

By Drew Perry
Viking, 336 pp., $25.95