Familial connections take some strange turns in Kids These Days, writing teacher Drew Perry’s follow-up to his comedic debut This Is Just Exactly Like You. Kirkus dubbed his first novel, about a man struggling to keep his family together, “a charitable and bleakly funny portrait of the American dream gone off the rails.” His second novel—“a funny, frenzied tale of a terrified man plummeting helplessly into his own adulthood” —revisits some of the same themes about family dysfunction but adds in a little more crime, a lot more anxiety, and pumps the comic value of an everyday life up to 11.
Kids Like Us is about a married couple, Walter and Alice, who find themselves pregnant on the precipice of a tidal wave of bad luck. The baby was planned, a reluctant move on Walter’s part, but losing both their jobs and retreating to Alice’s family’s vacation condo in St. Augustine was not.
“I’m definitely made nervous by a world in which so much harm can befall us with absolutely no warning,” Perry laughs, on the phone from his home in Greensboro, North Carolina. “But if I didn’t find the strangeness of the world funny, I’d be doomed. I have this buddy who calls and leaves messages like, ‘Hey, I just wanted to call and let you know that I passed a guy out on Battleground Avenue beating a stop sign with a chain and I thought that would be the sort of thing you would like.’ It’s those little things that I hold on to in order to stitch the world back together when I’m writing.”
In exploring the American dream, Perry found himself blundering into the American nightmare of post-crisis capitalism as Walter goes to work for Alice’s brother-in-law Mid, a shady purveyor of beach accoutrements ranging from condos to parking lot ice machines, the maintenance of which becomes Walter’s first assignment.
“I have to confess that at the same time I was thinking about having a kid, I became obsessed with parking lot ice machines,” Perry says. “I think there’s something about the parking lot ice machine in a non-vacation town that’s even stranger than in a beach town. I started thinking, ‘Who owns these things?’ That set me off on the nature of commerce and the grand American experiment and how that all culminates in a parking lot ice machine.”
Perry, who has vacationed with his family in Florida for over 30 years, also found a wealth of material in the hot zone.
“It’s the strangest place on Earth and…I just realized that in one single sentence, I alienated all Floridians,” Perry says. “St. Augustine is a place of desperate oddness, and always has been. I just like the notion of the beach town—gas stations with metal signs, the beach chairs for sale on the highway and the bikini shows and the drive-through liquor stores. It feels like the American dream, only a little more garishly colored.”
As a writing teacher at Elon University, Perry is drawn more to the literary likes of the novels of Richard Ford and the stories of Aimee Bender or Kevin Wilson. But as drugs and pirates and arrests and flying machines pile up in Kids These Days, readers wouldn’t be amiss in thinking they had wandered into a comic crime novel in the vein of Carl Hiaasen or Tim Dorsey were it not for the poignant sympathy that Perry brings to Walter’s plight.
“It’s not really a detective story but it does skew towards that caper tradition,” Perry admits. “I don’t know if the novel is a serious person’s club but it’s true that there aren’t as many comedic novelists out there. I certainly feel drawn to the puzzle nature of a crime story. Walter is going through that…through his fish-out-of-water experience.”
His books are certainly comic novels but Perry says his experience of writing about a life gone sideways can lead to a strange kind of self-analysis.
“I think my main characters are versions of myself that I’m afraid exist or versions of myself that crop up in real life from time to time,” he explains. “So in addition to writing about real fear—the things I fear I’m becoming—I’m writing about the fear of inflicting bad things upon the people who mean the most to me. I return to humor intentionally because I feel that it’s a mode I can understand. When characters are interacting with each other in ways that are emotionally complicated and in ways that are both devastating and funny at the same time, that’s a place I feel all right. There’s something beautifully strange about those moments and I’m endlessly attracted to them.”
For the author, now a father of two, the experience of raising kids has inspired two terrific novels. But don’t go asking for parenting advice.
“Run like hell,” Perry laughs. “But then come right back. It’s a bit like having a sociopath under your roof of whom you’re terribly fond. There’s no mood that lasts more than 15 minutes and you’re holding on for dear life. They’re tiny drunken terrorists who follow you around demanding things.”
As for Perry’s wishes for the book once it arrives, the author is reflective and somewhat protective of his odd novel about the curious adventures of our lives.
“There’s some strangeness to the book moving off my desk and out into the world,” he says. “I hope it’s genuinely funny and I hope there are moments when it’s heartbreaking. I always feel that if I’m reading something and it hasn’t shaken me in some way, left me feeling differently about the world, I think the writing has fallen down a little bit. I hope this creates that kind of damage in the reader. I want people to be worried for Walter and Alice, and hopeful for them all at the same time.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.