Dave Eggers fans should enjoy Canadian journalist Kelly’s rambunctious first novel about the guilt-ridden scion of a super-rich, eccentric Martha’s Vineyard family.
Collie Flanagan is the angst-ridden narrator of his family’s history. Mom is Anais Flanagan, an eccentric, perhaps insane Marxist who despises her father Peregrine “The Falcon” Lowell, a WASP publishing baron. Dad is womanizing, alcoholic Charlie Flanagan. Rounding out the ramshackle household is Charlie’s pigeon-raising brother Uncle Tom. Collie takes his mother’s hatred in stride. She never lets him forget that his birth was the worst day of her life on two counts: his arrival on the same day Kennedy was shot, and his masculine sex. Collie’s younger brother Bingo, meanwhile, is a beautiful feckless charmer, and Anais adores him. Early on Collie casually announces that Bingo died twice by the age of 19, setting up the reader’s apprehension as Collie delivers a barrage of anecdotes showing the various nutty/drunken/wacky/irresponsible aspects of the Flanagan clan. There are the dogs everywhere, Mom’s fixation with Rupert Brooke, the brawls, the meals of nothing but ice cream. After surviving an asthma attack as a child, Bingo becomes something of a terror, a prankster kicked out of multiple schools, but he’s still his parents’ delight while stolid Collie, a star at Andover and then Brown, becomes his austere grandfather’s pet project. Collie gives painful examples of his lack of grit in contrast to wild misbehaving Bingo’s personal courage. Then halfway through the novel comes the caving accident. Bingo drowns. Recognizing he couldn’t have saved him, Collie, now 19, nevertheless blames himself. So does Anais, who slugs Collie hard enough to break his jaw before dropping dead in maternal grief. The novel becomes a story of Collie’s redemption. Through a series of reinventions—student to playboy to idealist (taken captive in war-torn El Salvador) to doctor to pigeon racer—he learns the meaning of courage.
As Collie says while Uncle Tom is telling one of his endless stories, “Here it comes—death by anecdote.”