A man who is tired of people confusing his last name seizes the opportunity to adopt a new identity.
Ed Smythe lives in Chicago with his wife, where he deals with violent fights over parking, a job with a boss he can’t stand and constant confusion over his name being “Smythe” rather than “Smith.” Ed has a job interview in Pittsburgh, and a chance to establish a new life and a new identity. After a string of misadventures, including being pulled aside by airport security over a pair of extremely large toenail clippers and nearly being crushed by an obese woman in the airplane seat next to him, he makes it to Pittsburgh. When Ed arrives at his hotel, he discovers an ID in his pocket for “Ted Smith,” who lives on the same street as him in Chicago. Sick of the constant confusion, Ed adopts Ted Smith’s identity. This sets off a surreal chain of events that makes it unclear to Ed and the people around him if his identity is real. When he is forced into a confrontation with the real Ted Smith, Ed has to come to terms with his true identity, and if it even matters. The novel has a dreamlike quality, with Burns’ short, rapid-fire sentences laying the groundwork for Ed’s strange journey to Pittsburgh and back again. Burns’ portrayal of Ed’s internal struggle, including imagined advice from his wife and the obsessive-compulsive nature his father passed on to him, is unnerving and obscures whether Ed is imagining what is happening around him. Ed’s adventures seem over the top at times, and the reactions of many of the characters to Ed and his travails are extreme, but they add to Burns’ strategy of disorienting the reader. This approach also emphasizes Ed’s frustration with himself and his inability to take control of his life. The narrative is not always cohesive, but it is effective and unsettling, leaving the reader wondering who Ed Smythe really is.
A bleak, sharp portrayal of an identity in crisis.