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By Amity Gaige
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
On the one hand, Eric Kennedy's story is that of a familiar American rise and fall. College, followed by a period of wandering, then love and marriage, followed by parenthood. A decent job gives way to better job--in real estate, set up for Eric by his generous father-in-law--and early middle-age is marked by a period of relative prosperity and contentment. But unhappiness creeps in. The real estate market crashes. A period as a "stay at home dad" follows. Eric's wife Laura is troubled by his sometimes erratic parenting style. She remarks that she doesn't feel like she knows him. And so: divorce, shabby apartment, shared visitation. Eric feels a bit blindsided by it all.
So far, Eric seems to fit within a category of masculinity more than adequately represented in recent literary fiction--the limp, withering sad-sack (LWSS); the emasculated, pudgy Viagra-user (EPVU).
But one powerful reason that Schroder rises so high above recent novels featuring such characters--I'm thinking of The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison and A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers, but there are literally hundreds of others to choose from--is that Gaige's protagonist, despite the many similarities, is emphatically not an LWSS or EPVU. Eric Kennedy is flawed but wonderfully complex. Schroder is the fourth book I've given 10 stars to here at CCLaP, after Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds, Richard Ford's Canada, and Rebbecca Lee's Bobcat. Which means that I recommend this book to everyone. I think anyone who reads it will be richer for it.
That said, Schroder is a difficult novel to write about. It's graceful and elegant, and yet there's a mean streak that runs through it. It's a very smart novel that takes much of its structure from Nabokov's Lolita. The resemblance is close enough that I recognized it immediately even though I read Lolita in high school, when my mind for reading (and especially reading Nabokov) wasn't fully formed. Schroder is also one of the most well-written books I've read this year, and it's very confidently presented. And yet, despite the big brain at work Schroder has a breezy, entertaining quality. It's suspenseful, quick, and at times even thrilling.
The plot goes something like this: Eric Kennedy was born Eric Schroder. The fateful transformation from Schroder to Kennedy takes place after a childhood doctor's visit, during which young Eric reads a brochure for a summer camp in the waiting room. He steals the brochure, takes it home, and it becomes a powerful fantasy for him. Eric's life so far has been very unlike the carefree lifestyle depicted in the brochure's pages--born in Germany, abandoned by (or torn away from) his mother at a young age, transported to a new immigrant life in America, where he and his father fail to fit in. Gaige's description of Camp Ossipee bears a resemblance to the summer camp at the center of Phillip Roth's 2009 novel Nemesis. Its a place where you can become a whole new person. Eric Schroder fills out the application on the back of the brochure, but instead of "Schroder" he writes the last name "Kennedy." On the spot, he concocts a new history for himself--a childhood as a member of fallen aristocratic family, a hazy connection to the "other" Kennedys. As Eric Kennedy, he applies for and receives a scholarship to the camp. And at Camp Ossipee he does become a whole new person. And he likes the new person better than the old. The new person's name is of course Eric Kennedy, and so he keeps it. When we meet Eric, he has gone to college, gotten married, had a child and succumbed to divorce, all as Eric Kennedy. Now he's stuck. He's mired in a custody battle with his wife, but he can't challenge her in court, because if he did his true identity would be found out.
The genius of this concept is that its so easy to empathize with. Literally everyone has been struck at one time or another with the desire to be more than who we are, so we can understand why Eric would take on his new identity. Starting the story at a place where we can relate to Eric is important, because his decisions quickly go from bad to worse. Soon, we're watching in something close to horror as he engages in a slow-mo train wreck of a high speed chase with his father-in-law, and then kidnaps his daughter. The bulk of the novel is the ensuing father and daughter road trip. We watch as Eric makes one questionable decision after another. He seems almost determined to prove to us that he is a bad person--he tries to lock his daughter in the trunk of his stolen car, he abandons her to have drunken sex, he loses her asthma medication--but we never lose our sympathy for Eric, or our ability to relate to him.
In last week's New York Times Book Review there was a column that asked the question of whether there was a "Great American Novel" written by a woman. The answers the dueling columnists gave were unsatisfactory to me--variations of "what is a 'Great American Novel' anyway?" Well, I would like to nominate Schroder for that status. This novel tackles the big themes of its day, has a ripped-from-the-headlines plot, and is filled with impeccable writing, but one of it's major strengths--the extreme empathy with which Gaige approaches her protagonist--is distinctly feminine.
I know, I know. Equating femininity with empathy is reductive. In fact, the thought may be borderline sexist. And I started this review with a mini-rant about LWSS and EPVU protaganists and the reductive view of masculinity that they perpetuate. I guess my point is that I'm not sure that a male writer could have been so generous with Eric, and that the idea discussing the great American novel with the qualifier "written by a woman" attached, while potentially reductive, might be more worthwhile than it seems.
Out of 10: 10