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BOOK REVIEW

Dickensian optimism, plus character quirks

By Joseph Peschel
July 22, 2010

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Justin Kramon is a promising young writer whose short stories have been published in prestigious literary magazines such as Glimmer Train, TriQuarterly, and Boulevard. “Finny,’’ Kramon’s first book, is a good-hearted, episodic novel presented in three parts called “Books’’ that explores, a la Charles Dickens’s “David Copperfield,’’ the life of Delphine “Finny’’ Short.

In Book One, we meet Finny, a 14-year-old girl, who is argumentative, snarky, and stubborn in a funny sort of way. She sadly admits, “I feel like I’m not the person my parents want me to be.’’ Because she’s been sneaking around to meet a boy, Earl, and lying about it, Finny’s parents pull her out of Slope School in northern Maryland and send her off to Thorndon, a boarding school just west of Boston. There she becomes great friends with Judith, a rich Manhattanite. But soon, Finny’s father dies, and, since mother can’t afford Thorndon, Finny resumes her education at Slope, where so little happens to her that those four years are summed up in a chapter called “An Interlude.’’

In Book Two, she’s a freshman at Stradler College in Pennsylvania. But most of the time, we find Finny visiting old friends in New York, her mother in Maryland, and Earl in Paris. So little happens after Finny’s first year of college that Kramon sums everything up in a chapter called — as you might’ve guessed — “Another Interlude.’’

By Book Three, Finny is a 34-year-old woman. She’s kept some of her old friends, acquires only a smattering of lovers in a decade and a half, and rekindles old relationships.

Those old relationships formed as a teenager are the ones that have stuck and have shaped Finny’s world. In her view, life is “hilariously funny and devastatingly sad. And only if you saw both things could you ever have a realistic idea of the subject.’’ That seems to be Kramon’s view, too, and it’s a terse summary of Charles Dickens’s philosophy.

Although “Finny’’ is written in third person, similarities to “Copperfield’’ abound: Each chapter carries a title Dickens might have concocted. The Interlude chapters do the work of and read like the “Retrospect’’ chapters of “Copperfield.’’ Minor characters possess odd and humorous Dickensian names, and seem bigger than life and a tad cartoonish. Take Menalcus Henckel, who suffers from narcolepsy and sweats when he talks about himself. There’s Mrs. Barksdale, too, the principal nicknamed “Old Yeller’’ by her charges at Thorndon, who leaves canine-like imprints on her pencils.

There are sad moments in “Finny’’ — breakups, a heart attack, a suicide — but Kramon finds humor in sadness, and the novel’s overall impact is optimistic. Most of the gags are funny: In one scene, all of the boarding school girls show up for evening inspection wearing purple T-shirts, looking exactly like Finny, who’s been ordered to wear such a shirt after 8 p.m. so that she stands out. And I couldn’t stop chuckling during the long scene where Miss Simpkin, Mrs. Barksdale’s secretary, has summoned Finny to the principal’s office. Barksdale browbeats Finny in her office and consults Simpkin by intercom. Simpkin tries, but sometimes forgets to use the buzzer, since she can hear what’s going on through the walls.

Other gags are funny, like the slapstick bit of Earl throwing rocks at Finny’s window and hitting her as she opens it. But some fall flat, like the sneezing morticians bit. And occasionally, some of Kramon’s comic impulses step on the toes of what could be especially heartrending.

In the unfolding of Finny’s life, Kramon shares with Dickens a primarily optimistic outlook: His major characters, especially Finny and Earl, mostly get what they deserve. “Finny’’ is lighter social commentary than “Copperfield,’’ but more relevant to the way we live today, the way we face death, disloyalty, and hardship. He’s not quite in Dickens’s league — who is? — but Kramon is a talented young author and “Finny’’ a worthy read, and a dickens of a first novel.

Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at joe@josephpeschel.com

FINNY

By Justin Kramon

Random House, 384 pp., paperback, $15