Where would fiction be without unhappy families? The cruel, the withholding, the broken and estranged: They’re all great, messy fodder for so much of the literature we love. (And so much safer to spend time with on the page than in our own wildly imperfect lives.)
Glorious discord and damaged DNA are all over a pair of new novels — though they don’t share a whole lot else in the details, really, beyond an indelible voice and settings somewhere below the Mason-Dixon Line. As Jami Attenberg’s All This Could Be Yours opens, the Tuchman patriarch — “he was an angry man, and he was an ugly man, and he was tall, and he was pacing” — is about to keel over in a New Orleans condo, taking (nearly) all his secrets with him. Victor’s impending death is not exactly a tragedy for those he’ll leave behind: wife Barbra, a brittle, birdlike woman for whom “pretty and thin” isn’t just a mantra, it’s canonical law; daughter Alex, a tightly wound attorney still in the blast radius of her recent divorce; and wayward son Gary, a TV director who would rather play stoned hooky in his Los Angeles Airbnb than deal with any of this.
Alex is eager to take care of unfinished business, though what she wants isn’t absolution but answers: What exactly did Victor, with his cigars and his long absences and his shady “business associates,” actually do for a living? And why won’t Barbra give him up? Toggling back and forth through perspectives and time, Attenberg (The Middlesteins) gives each character their own rich history, making even tertiary ones — a Pilates instructor, a CVS clerk, a world-weary coroner — come fantastically alive, sometimes in just a single line. New Orleans, too, is its own protagonist: a place of sticky booze and Spanish moss and endless, swampy heat that also knows its own clichés, inside and out.
There’s hardly a sentence in Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here that feels like anything you’ve read before; that’s how fresh his voice is, and how willfully, wonderfully bizarre the book’s plot. Lillian is a scholarship kid at a Tennessee boarding school who improbably finds a best friend in Madison, a feral beauty with piles of family money and the morals to match. Still somehow pen pals years later despite a terrible betrayal, they’re reunited when Madison, now the young wife of a silver-haired senator, asks for a favor: Would Lillian like to play governess to her two stepchildren? They’re great kids! The thing is, they kind of catch on fire. When they’re mad, when they’re agitated, when they’re overwhelmed, it just happens — spontaneous combustion. Which is a health hazard, yeah, but also bad for business when you’re a public figure hoping for even higher office.
Wilson (The Family Fang) unfurls all this from Lillian’s point of view: witty, confiding, breezily profane. And tender, too; raised by a spectacularly indifferent single mother (“It seemed like maybe some Greek god has assumed the form of a stallion and impregnated her before returning to his home atop Mount Olympus. More likely it was just a pervert in one of the fancy homes my mom cleaned”), she hardly knows how to recognize her own maternal instincts when these two awkward, terrified “fire children” suddenly become hers to care for. That the supernatural elements of Nothing feel so right is a testament to Wilson’s innate skill as a storyteller. But it’s the humanity in his words, and in All This, that stays: the unmistakable tenor of real life, too ludicrous not to be true.
All This Could Be Yours: A-
Nothing to See Here: A-