Drab first novel, following the story collection A Jeweler’s Eye for Flaw (2002).
The Hawthornes are a classic dysfunctional family. The father, Randall, is a vet who lost half a leg in Vietnam and lives off his disability checks. The mother, Gerrie, works double shifts at a chain restaurant because, hey, she likes it there. The kids (Frankie is ten, Teddy seven) tag along after their dad as he makes the rounds of the VA hospital, the pool hall and the dog track. In the evening there’s television, the glue that holds them together. The story opens in the summer of 1980, as the family situation brightens with the arrival, in their depressed Massachusetts town, of Uncle Harpo, Randall’s brother, in full military uniform. His comedy routines are a riot. But he overstays his welcome, and after Gerrie sends him packing, Randall’s nightmares get worse and he shoots himself; it’s Frankie who finds him dead. The tragedy affects the kids differently. Teddy throws tantrums, but Frankie just shuts down. “A freak and a mute,” complains their mother bitterly. Six years later, little has changed for Frankie, now a senior in high school. Her only boyfriend is gone before you know it. She’s smart but has no interest in college applications. Teddy is changing (first the class cut-up, later on “just another punk”) and Gerrie is changing (finding a boyfriend, a real sweetheart), but Frankie just stays stuck in her rut, even when she’s accepted by NYU (her mother had taken care of the application). A closing section has Frankie returning to memories of her father; this last lap around the grief circuit suggests a writer who’s run out of material.
There’s no liftoff for a plotless novel heavy on stereotypes.