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Friday, March 12, 2010

Everything Matters!: We're All Gonna Die!!

Ron Currie Jr. would probably take umbrage with a Bud Light commercial making the rounds these days. In it, scientists spot a meteor heading toward Earth, realize that death is imminent, and commence partying as if nothing matters anymore. But Currie takes a rather unconventional route toward trying to convince you that, even when you know you're going to die, everything in fact, DOES matter. 

When our protagonist, Junior Thibodeau, is born, a mysterious voice, which stays with him his entire life, informs him the exact moment the world will end. A comet will crash into the planet on June 15, 2010 at 3:44 pm EST, approximately 36 years from the day he's born. So Junior has to go through life trying to make meaning out of a seemingly purposeless existence, or as he says at a particularly low point of his adulthood, "...life has never been any great f#$%ing shakes in my opinion. In fact, it's always seemed a messy and heartbreaking and overall pointless affair."

Will Junior ever change his mind? I kept hoping so, and that's why I couldn't stop reading. Everything Matters! is a novel about discovering the pleasures of life, the importance of love, and capitalizing on opportunities. Look, death is a part of life, Currie would say. We all know we're going to die. Whether we know exactly when doesn't matter. What does is that for life to fulfilling, to matter, we must find our own paths toward life's meaning. So, carpe diem!

The story is told though a cadre of shifting narrators — Junior himself, his family and his girlfriend Amy, and the Voices Junior hears, which tell their sections to Junior ("We should tell you at this point," eg.) in a numbered countdown to Comet Day. We see Junior come of age, struggle with alcoholism and heartbreak, and generally try to make meaning of his life.

The pleasures of this novel are two-fold: the characters and the writing. The characters: Junior's brother, recovering from a teenage cocaine addiction, which rendered him, um, simple-minded, plays baseball for the Cubs. His mother is an alcoholic and his father a workaholic. And, addition to the fact that he hears the Voices, Junior himself is also the 4th smartest person on the planet, according to the Voices. But he's still a normal, easily recognizable dude, as are all these flawed-but-real characters.

Secondly, Currie is a fabulously talented, fun-to-read writer. At one point, writing about Junior and his classmates watching the Challenger explosion, he describes the booster rockets that "...fly wildly away...tracing slow, chunky vapor trails, like illiterate skywriters." I got chills. What an image!

But beyond a sentence-by-sentence basis, the inventive structure of the novel — the different narrators, the omniscient Voices counting down section-by-section to doomsday — gives a well-rounded perspective on Junior and the events of the story. The fact that other characters tell their own stories in the first person also lends a bit more realism to the novel, lest you're turned off by the narrative gimmick of the Voices telling us what's happening to Junior. And, finally, the structure works and is necessary because Junior is often so jilted and misanthropic that the multiple narrators bring much-needed reliability and trust to the story. They also provide some essential levity. If we only heard Junior's story, most readers would stop after page 75, depressed and frustrated.

The only major problem I had with the book is that just after I understood the point, and was kind of in awe of Currie's writerly prowess and looking forward to a great, profound ending, Currie turns to a sort of silly narrative trick. It made me wonder if Currie's editor didn't request another 50 or so pages to beef up the book a bit. But I don't want to dissuade you from reading this great book. The good far outweighs the bad, and the uplifting message makes it a fine book for anyone who has ever struggled to understand what it all means.

(Two other reasons I loved this novel, that I'm putting down here because most readers of this review probably won't care:  1) Currie includes a hilarious inside joke intended solely for sports geeks: Junior's older brother Rodney plays for the Cubs, and in one the sections Rodney narrates, he explains that he has to use a fake name to check into hotels to avoid stalkers. That fake name: Ron Mexico, which is also the fake name Michael Vick used when he checked into hotels. 2) There's a homage to David Foster Wallace's short story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men — a conversation between Junior's brother Rodney and a therapist in which we only get to read Rodney's side of the conversation. Don't worry, if this post-modern strategy isn't your cup of tea, it's only a few pages and doesn't distract from the main story at all.)

9 comments:

  1. Oh, wow, this books sounds really interesting! I like the premise (and will carefully ignore that the world is supposed to end in about three months), and it sounds like a good way to look at the idea of the world ending.

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  2. You rock. You use 'cadre' with such ease.

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  3. Sounds like a great read! I've given you an award on my blog, so be sure to check it out!

    Angela
    http://mybookbarn.blogspot.com

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  4. Hey there! I'm just hoppin' on by from the Blog Hop! I am now a brand new follower!

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  5. @Aarti - Yeah, it really is a fresh take on a common literary trope. Highly recommended - can't wait to hear what you think of it!

    @Amy - Ah, thanks! 'Cadre' is such a cool word. :)

    @Book Barn & Lydia - Thank you! Much appreciated.

    @Lisa - Welcome to the NDRB - thanks for following!

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  6. I'm liking the premise of this one. It sounds like an interesting read.
    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  7. Came over from Cym Lowell's McLinky links for Book Review Party Wednesday.

    Reading through your review, it sounds like the characters need professional help... and the book is a realistic reflection of modern life in a fiction world?

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  8. Mmmm, a homage to David Foster Wallace you say? Will need to check it out - thanks!

    Let It Read

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