Book's murder plots become confusing dead ends
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Starting with Adam Haslett's provocative "Union Atlantic" in February, it's been a year of exceptional fiction, and we're only halfway through.
Joining the list of bright new novelists is Adam Ross, who, instead of asking the usual "what do women want?" question, explores almost tirelessly the desires of men, married ones who want the same thing -- out.
His three husbands are video game designer David Pepin and two New York City detectives, Hastroll and Sam Sheppard (yes, that Sam Sheppard), and they have all been linked to one sure way out: murder.
For all we know, Sheppard succeeded but eventually got off. Now, in Mr. Ross' skewed world, he's a cop -- and that's a problem for this convoluted novel.
Marilyn Sheppard's 1954 murder has been thoroughly discussed, but Mr. Ross replays it in all its gruesome details. The reality of it is simply out of place in a work of fiction, and the novelist can't force the facts of the case to fit with his created world.
It seems as though Mr. Ross at first decided to write a fictional account of the Sheppard case, then decided to change course without jettisoning the Cleveland doctor and his perplexing case by squeezing it to his stories.
The Marilyn section is one of several intensely imagined feats of writing, but they're all a tough slough. The book starts smartly enough with the complicated story of Pepin and Alice and their 13-year marriage.
She's dead when the story begins, dying from a fatal handful of peanuts, one of her many allergies. Alice is one of the most annoying wives in recent literary history -- a depressive fraught with health problems who once weighed 288 pounds, who disappeared for nine months with no word to Pepin and blames her lack of "joy" on her husband.
Hastroll's wife, Hannah, has taken to her bed, forcing him to wait on her, sleep alone and barely share his life with her. He dreams of smothering her with a pillow and dismembering her body in the bathtub.
The detectives investigate Alice's death as a homicide for good reason: As a way to escape from his grim relationship, Pepin has written a novel speculating on ways Alice might die. He's also hired a hit man with the all-too-obvious name of Mobius. The real Mobius was a 19th-century mathematician who invented that twisted strip where things are far from obvious.
Mr. Ross also brings in painter M.C. Escher's curious "Encounter" drawing of black and white creatures evolving and devolving. It's one of Pepin's favorite artworks.
I suggested at the beginning of this review that "Mr. Peanut" (the title refers to the name Alice gives to her unborn baby) is about the dynamics of marriage, so how do these symbols, joined with the Sam Sheppard case, explain the institution?
With some difficulty. While Mr. Ross writes movingly of couples' struggles to keep their unions working, he lays much of the blame on wives, women who want too much from their men, like honesty and openness.
The husbands don't understand their partners. Instead they go to great lengths to please them, as shown so painfully in a grueling, miserable trek Alice and Pepin suffer in Hawaii. Fully realized by Mr. Ross, this section might be seen as an allegory for the struggles of marriage or just a stupid decision by the husband to make his wife happy.
This incident follows a graphically described miscarriage in a jetliner above the Pacific, with nothing left to the imagination.
Pepin eventually finishes his novel after reaching this conclusion:
"... the process of writing fiction was purpose without procedure. You felt some sort of resolution or ending luring your forward, but had no idea really how to actually arrive at it, though you had to get there nonetheless. Life, when you came right down to it, was like that, too."
So is "Mr. Peanut," a novel that when good, is very, very good, but when it's bad, it's confusing.
First Published July 11, 2010 12:00 am