Starkman’s (Great Places to Learn, 2006, etc.) debut novel features a postal carrier named Cleve and a coterie of eccentric neighbors who attempt to solve a series of bizarre local mysteries.
There is no normalcy in Eaton; the small Midwestern town is overrun with the most eccentric of eccentrics, including an octogenarian who trains her dogs to make tea and a corrupt, diminutive mayor whose quarterly parties would make Pope Alexander VI blush. There is, however, a relative status quo in Eaton, which is disrupted when an absurd foreign conflict divides the town, and a sniper seems bent on snuffing out its letter carriers. Cleve’s levelheaded investigation into these dramas form the crux of the novel, and from it unfolds some rather sharp observations about civil responsibility, small-town prejudices and the widespread jingoism that results from U.S. military campaigns. It is in these allegorical moments that the rollicking plot finds its stride and comes closest to justifying its large, zany cast. Yet, as Cleve digs deeper into some shady connections, the once-enjoyable eccentricities of the cast and the oddities of their town begin to distract as much as they delight. Starkman is overly attentive to minor characters and relies on unnatural exposition, testing readers’ patience in the novel’s second half. This unfortunately makes waste of some great dialogue and distracts from what should have been the novel’s best asset: Eaton and its people. When Cleve finally connects the dots, readers might think that the author is stretching to do the same considering the many digressions of the novel and its bloated cast. At its heart, this is a whimsical and funny novel with the potential to both amuse readers with wild characters and to keep them intrigued with an inventive plot. Unfortunately, the two amusements often seem mutually exclusive, as the comedy bounds between local laughs and global happenings without finding a good regional balance.
An inventive farce waylaid by excessive absurdity and a sprawling cast.