Retired sportswriter Phil Camp feels bad about his back. And his love life. And his family. And his childhood torments.
Surprisingly, Scheft (Time Won’t Let Me, 2005, etc.), a veteran writer for The Late Show With David Letterman, keeps Phil’s story appealingly light. On a lark, Phil spent a few weeks writing a parody of self-help books; Where Do I Stow My Baggage? became a runaway bestseller thanks to the many readers who didn’t think it was a joke. The book and the syndicated column it inspired, written under the nom de plume Marty Fleck, have left Camp financially comfortable but in pain everywhere else. His back aches, his ex-wife sabotaged his last serious relationship and his half-brother Jim McManus is a Limbaugh-like radio host who routinely takes on-air swipes at the insipidness of Fleck’s insights. Shortly before Phil has back surgery, a stranger tips him off to The Power of “Ow!” by Dr. Samuel Abrun, who argues that physical pain is actually a mental problem. From there ensues a comedy of errors involving Abrun’s bright, emotionally wounded daughter; warring misunderstandings between Phil and Jim; and a host of memories about childhood neglect and adult infidelity. To keep that last plot thread from becoming too mordant, Scheft applies a Woody Allen-ish tone. Phil is genial, self-deprecating and quick with an ironic wisecrack, but ready to lay himself emotionally bare as well. Like Allen, Scheft seems to know his way around the psychiatrist’s couch; he has a keen sense of the emotional pathways of depression and of how therapy awkwardly leads people into and out of their worst experiences. A few beams are creaky: A subplot involving Derek Jeter doesn’t quite work, and the relationship between Abrun and his daughter lacks the main story’s depth. But Scheft’s rendering of family dysfunction is consistently sturdy.
Much like Phil’s fictitious self-help book: meant as a gag, but with enough smarts to be taken seriously.