The death of a drug-addicted patriarch, and the stockpile of cash he’s rumored to have left behind, has a broad impact across multiple families.
Frumkin’s ambitious, sensitive, and busy first novel centers on Leland Bloom-Mittwoch, who in 1999 flung himself from the roof of a Tampa hotel. He lived rough: He had a cocaine habit he routinely rationalized (he called it his “medicine”) and a family he often neglected. He also possessed a briefcase full of money that was previously in the hands of a drug dealer. Cue a hunt among family, friends, and enemies to locate it. But the luggage is a MacGuffin: The novel is less a mystery than a set of character studies that make up a cross-section of contemporary America, white and black, rich and poor, cis and trans. Individually, they’re remarkable portraits: Leland’s second wife, Diedre, nearly 20 years his junior, is an engrossing Florida street punk; Maria, his youngest son’s estranged girlfriend, was a child prodigy who at 15 was determined to “prove conclusively that the external world exists”; Natasha, who sacrificed a strict upbringing to take up with a drug dealer, is a tragic but indomitable figure. Intelligence is a common thread among the characters, which benefits Frumkin rhetorically—it frees her to riff on pharmaceuticals, music, Wittgenstein, Judaica, and fine art. But also thematically: She’s contemplating how much (or how little) brains have to do with our survival when many social forces are seemingly determined to undermine it. So the novel’s flaws are of the sort that afflict only writers who are swinging for the fences: complex plotting, research spilling off the pages like sap from a tree. A stronger novel would more efficiently connect its many threads (or dispense with a few), but from page to page, character to character, this is a powerful debut.
Frumkin has talent to burn, and this very good novel suggests the potential for a truly great one.