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Against the Wind

In the Rooms: A Novel by Tom Shone (Thomas Dunne Books, $24.99, 342 pages)

She probably only dated snowboarders with a rap sheet as long as their arm, the cheekbones of Viggo Mortensen, and a penchant for whittling driftwood into small but meaningful tokens of their appreciation for Life’s Bounteous Gifts.   I failed on both fronts.   I had neither misbehaved with sufficient abandon nor reformed myself with enough zeal.   I was just trying to get home without being tripped up, or found out, just like everyone else.

This debut novel might have been entitled Dim Lights, Big City as it is a reverse  image of Jay McInerney’s book and film Bright Lights, Big City.   In McInerney’s story, a young man turns to drinking and drugs to evade the memories of  his dead mother and an estranged wife.   In Tom Shone’s novel, protagonist Patrick Miller turns to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings as a way of shoring up his sagging career as a Manhattan-based literary agent.

Miller, who grew up in England (like his creator), has been shaken up by relationship problems – his girlfriend is bitterly honest about his flaws – and this has affected his ability to attract successful writers to the firm he works for.   And then, suddenly, he finds that his favorite author in the world – one-time Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Douglas Kelsey – is back in the Big Apple after spending years hiding out in the artists’ community of Woodstock.   Miller impulsively follows Kelsey when he spots him one day out on the streets of the city, and learns that the trail ends at an AA meeting in a church.

How is Miller going to get to speak to the reclusive Kelsey, a modern-day J.D. Salinger?   Well, simple, he will just pretend that he has a drinking problem and begin joining the meetings “in the rooms” of NYC.   But, actually, it’s not so simple because as he carries out his plan, Miller finds that he’s now lying all of the time to the two sets of people in his life – to his co-workers, he insists that he’s not a heavy drinker and does not have a problem (they think he’s in denial); to his new fellow AA members, he insists that he can’t handle his liquor or his women (oh, so he’s co-addicted to sex, just as they suspected).

If things aren’t complicated enough, Miller is soon attracted to Lola, a young woman he meets at one of these meetings – a woman who serves as a trusted liaison between him and the respected author – and they begin to get physical.   But, Catch-22, the rules of AA prohibit them from getting close to each other for a minimum of a year – a year based on mutual sobriety.   Eventually, Miller is not quite sure what he wants and just as he’s becoming addicted to Lola, his ex-flame comes back into his life.

If all of this sounds a bit glum, it’s not as told by Shone.   The novel is quite funny, as my wife can testify since I read no less than 8 or 9 lengthy excerpts of it to her…  Readers will identify with Miller as he’s a want-to-be nice guy who makes mistake after mistake, even after he’s decided mentally that he’s going to get his act together.   It seems that he just can’t win, as life keeps throwing unexpected changes his way.

Shone makes the telling especially interesting with many insights into both the book publishing world and AA.   While his characters are sometimes critical of the 12-step process, they’re also positive that the program works.   Here’s the ever-cynical Kelsey on Bill (Wilson) of the Big Book:   “Well, Bill’s no Steinbeck.   That’s for sure.   There’s nothing original to any of it.   He filched the whole thing.   It’s just religion’s greatest hits.”

The more that Patrick Miller learns about AA, the more he wonders if he may indeed have some problems.   Whether he drinks too much or not, virtually every AA member that he encounters tells him that he spends too much time inside of his head.   Miller is so busy analyzing life, and trying to find the right path and rules to follow, that it seems to be passing him by.

The true charm of In the Rooms, is its conclusion, in which our hero must make the right choices – the exact right choices – to prove to himself and others that he  is, in truth, the nice guy that he’s always wanted to be.   He’s helped along in this by what he’s come to learn “in the rooms” and so he comes to see that – ah, yes – it works!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   “Sharp, funny, and ultimately touching…  Recommended for readers of Nick Hornby and Joshua Ferris.”   Library Journal

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These Dreams of You

Cleaning Nabokov’s House: A Novel by Leslie Daniels (Touchstone; $24.00; 336 pages)

Debut author and literary agent Leslie Daniels sets the reader up for a tough and jarring ride before she detours us onto a softer road.   This begins as the story of a woman, Barb Barnett, who has no domestic skills and little self-esteem.   She leaves her husband John and her two children before they discover that she doesn’t know how to run the dishwasher in their home.   It may be the beginning of a period of freedom and growth for her – instead, she finds that she’s powerless, a helpless and hopeless person who’s utterly lost in the world.

Barb finds a weathered rental home in her husband’s (“the experson”) Upstate New York community of Onkwedo, home of Waindell University; a not too thinly disguised version of Ithaca, home to Cornell.   This turns out to have once been the temporary home of the famed writer Vladimir Nabokov; it may have been the home in which he wrote the classic Lolita over a two-year period.   The very lonely Barb finds that she’s not free of her ex-husband’s demands since she must do what he says in order to see her young children – a  purse-collecting girl and a very serious boy.   Even when John Barnett takes his kids and new girlfriend and moves a two-hour drive away from Onkwedo, Barb is expected to act as his servant, even taking care of John’s new dog for periods of up to six days at a time.

Barb’s powerlessness may have come to an end when she happens to find a manuscript in the rental home, a not fully completed novel about Babe Ruth that may or may not have been written by Nabokov.   Ah, the reader sees, this is going to be her ticket out…  Well, maybe.   At the urging of a literary agent, Barb takes it upon herself to complete the novel and takes it with her to New York City for authentication by literary experts.   (No doubt it’s going to be a genuine Nabokov and she’ll be rich.)

“My mother didn’t like bad things to happen to anyone, particularly herself.   To be fair, she didn’t like bad things to happen to me either, so she pretended they didn’t.   Her warding off of bad things involved revisions of reality.   When I was a child, she told me two years in a row that ‘Grandma is in Florida and can’t come for Christmas.’   The third year, I pinned her down and discovered that Grandma was dead.”

Forty-five percent of the way through this tale, the reader is certain of what’s going to happen.   Everything seems to be all sewn up in a neat little bundle for resolution.   And then everything changes.

While in Manhattan, Barb discovers a successful brothel that’s visited by men.   It dawns on her that her path to power and riches may lie in establishing a brothel in sleepy Onkwedo, although one that will meet the needs of the women in the village rather than the men.   One of the university’s heralded sports teams has just the young bloods she needs for her own unique team of athletes.   This is exactly where the fun and the sense of personal empowerment comes into play, for Barb realizes that if she can make enough money for herself she can stand up and take on John Barnett in a fair custody fight.

“John used to be right all the time.   It was a cornerstone belief of our former relationship: we both knew that John was always right.   Only that was no longer true.”

The once weak and timid Barb is assisted in her efforts by finding a strong and understanding man, who seems (and this is part of the charm of the story) to have suddenly appeared from the pages of a romance novel.   He’s a working man who knows better than to come on too strong with her, so she’s the one who makes the moves, even when it comes to their first kiss.

And so the serious becomes the sublime, with a heavy trace of satire and comedy, in a very unique offering from Daniels.   What makes it all work – and work so well, from start to finish – is that the reader is always in Barb Barnett’s corner even through all the script, set and background changes.   It’s a dizzying and sometimes puzzling read; all in all, a fun and tremendously engaging read.

Leslie Daniels pulls out all of the stops in this well recommended debut.   Bravo!  

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Cleaning Nabokov’s House was released on March 1, 2011.

“An odd mix of silly, ridiculous, and inspiring…  a pleasure to read.”   Publishers Weekly.

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