In Barrett’s debut farcical novel, a 30-something man living in a managed care facility finds unlikely allies in two middle schoolers.
New Jersey computer programmer Frank Johnson expects reimbursement after his grandfather dies prior to his stay at the Hardy Managed Care Facility. But as Ed Hardy refuses to refund Frank’s one-year advance payment, Frank moves in (perfectly legal, since he shares his name with his late grandfather). After six months of living in Room 422, he and Hardy are at a stalemate. Frank then meets Elroy, a 12-year-old foster kid, who’s at the facility as part of Rudolphsville Middle School’s newly minted Outreach Club. Elroy is just there to read to Frank, but this arrangement becomes an opportunity for Frank to enjoy time off campus. Hardy, of course, won’t let Frank choose a destination, but he likes Elroy’s idea: take Frank to a Catholic church for confession, an outing Hardy assumes Frank will despise. Frank’s excursions soon include the only other Outreach Club member, Sally Berman. Incidentally, Frank’s confessions inspire him to “fix” the church by providing what he believes is missing: intimacy. Though Frank revels in impudence (he wears and periodically endorses adult diapers), his gradual affection for his preteen pals is endearing. For example, Elroy’s elation at merely spending time with someone else’s family gets an emotional response from Frank, a self-professed “pretty hard-edged loner.” Elroy is a sympathetic character, enduring school bullies and living with an elderly couple unsuitable for fostering. Sally, too, recently lost her beloved Aunt Sadie to suicide and, burdened with an indifferent mother, becomes suicidal herself. The bond among the main characters, including the kids’ potential romance, is charming. Less engaging, however, is Frank’s plan regarding the church. But it’s a great excuse for the trio’s frequent bouts of hilarious banter.
Witty, occasionally crass, and an unqualified delight.