A big-hearted tale recalls the interconnected lives of two generations of a Midwestern family, by Wisconsin author Hribal (The Clouds in Memphis, 2000, etc.).
As it opens, narrator Emil (“Emcee”) Czabek, a middle-aged bookseller, is en route with wife Dorie and their three kids to join Emcee’s seven siblings and their families for the elder Czabeks’ 50th wedding anniversary—perhaps also the occasion of arranging to place honorees Wally and Susan Marie in a nursing home. The novel quickly becomes two stories: that of Emil’s seemingly endangered marriage to free-spirited (possibly adulterous) Dorie, and the raucous history of Wally and Susan, their progeny, their dreams and failures: above all, their perseverance, through Wally’s Coast Guard and Navy service, career as a traveling salesman, love for reassuring clichés and harebrained moneymaking schemes; Susan Marie’s intermittently hysterical, eventually stoical reactions to her handsome, charming husband’s grandiose excesses—and the paradoxical legacy of hopefulness and endurance they pass on, against all odds, to their scattered brood. There’s a lavish abundance of comic detail in Hribal’s seemingly autobiographical tale: “The Kaopectate Wars” brought on by shared childhood illnesses; the agony of installing an aboveground pool; a notorious Halloween party that precipitates the Czabeks’ move from the Chicago suburbs to a moribund Wisconsin “farm”; “the great rat hunt of 1967” and other crop-related disasters—and, through it all, the lesson incarnated by the impulsive, imperfectly human Czabeks: “We are weak everywhere. We make mistakes, and . . . our loved ones make accommodations.” The Company Car (so named for Wally’s pride in the emblem of his breadwinner-hood) sputters, stalls and retravels the same ground redundantly. But Wally and Susan Marie are generously imagined characters, and few readers will regret the time spent in their fractious company.
As flawed as real life, and every bit as absorbing.