An introvert confronts the odd behavior of various family members to preserve his home and sense of self.
Sharpe’s previous novel, Jamestown (2007), was a broad, raucous tale that satirized the mythology surrounding America’s first settlers. This slim follow-up, by contrast, couldn’t be more interior and domestic, though his arch humor and out-of-left-field plot turns remain intact. The hero, Karl Floor, is a milquetoast high-school math teacher from Long Island who, we learn in the first chapter, is so socially inept that two of his students feel free to beat him up after class. At home he discovers Sylvia Vetch, an attractive young woman who’s arrived to rob the place. Despite her criminality, Karl is so drawn to her that he lets her take him to a party where he suffers the taunts of her alpha-male friends. Making his escape, he returns home to fight with his stepfather, Larchmont, culminating in Karl’s smashing his head with a pool cue. Larchmont absorbs his near-death experience with surprisingly good humor, after which Sylvia returns to announce that she’s actually Larchmont’s daughter and Karl’s half-sister, and—actually, plot summary only goes so far in characterizing Sharpe’s earnest but willfully absurd and deeply frustrating novel. Karl is a kind of existentialist archetype, batted around by all manner of social forces—race, class, family, romantic relationships—but his acting out with a pool cue makes him an unsympathetic hero in the face of those challenges. Because Sharpe is disinterested in penetrating Karl’s psyche (or anybody else’s) very deeply, the novel is mainly defined by how it jumps from ridiculous plot point to plot point—the various threads, involving blackmail, the ownership of the Floor family home and Karl’s capacity to love, all eventually resolve, but not particularly satisfyingly. In Jamestown, the arrogance and violence of colonialism was fair game for Sharpe’s attitude; affecting the same tone here means he’s cracking wise about broken homes and immature loners, which feels like small-game hunting. The abstracted plotting only further distances the reader.
Biting prose in need of a worthier target.