It is readily apparent from the get-go in Darin Strauss’ third, and first non-historical novel, that one is dealing with a pro. The scene begins with clamoring trills of acidly observed normalcy at a New York office where Josh Goldin, a salesman overflowing with effortless charm, is making the conversational rounds with his coworkers before getting the news that his wife Dori is rushing their eight-month-old son Zack to intensive care. All calm evaporated, Josh is soon flying down the L.I.E. to the hospital, where he lands in the middle of a dispute between Dori and an officious doctor, who have different takes on the subject.
The normally smooth-operating Josh, whose talent is “fluffing people’s mental pillows”, finds himself briefly at sea but relaxes confidently around the medically-trained Dori, who “spoke fluent hospital”. While Strauss proves able to keep up this sort of jazzily casual characterization throughout the book, he nearly runs the whole thing off the road later on, when the clamoring plot takes precedence over everything else.
A New York novel through and through, More Than It Hurts You shares a strong resemblance to Strauss’ earlier historical novels, which reveled in their period settings. The more popular of the two, Chang and Eng, about the famous Siamese twins, is in the process of being adapted for the screen by Gary Oldman (who also reads an excerpt from More Than It Hurts You at the publisher’s website).
Strauss’ second novel, The Real McCoy, was a big shout of a book about a real-life scam artist, hurling all the noise and steamy racket of turn-of-the-century New York at the page and ended up being one of the great novels of 2002. More Than It Hurts You starts out with similar aspirations. Instead of letting the contemporary setting stifle his imagination (as sometimes happens), Strauss turns the same sociological eye on his cast of characters and seems at times on the verge of creating a Bonfire of the Vanities for the new millennium.
Strauss gets closer to achieving Wolfe-ian insight in the earlier sections of the book, as he is setting the stage for the media carnival that swallows up the later chapters. The characters of Josh and Dori are carefully pieced together types who never become stereotypes, no matter how much they exemplify a certain breed of upwardly mobile East Coast suburban professional, with good colleges in their past, brand in their present, and comfortable retirements in the future. Strauss spends more time, and arguably to better result even, in creating Darlene Stokes, the doctor who treats Zack and begins to believe that Dori has actually been harming her own son, a syndrome known as Munchausen by proxy.
A black woman from Brooklyn who bucked every obstacle placed in her way, Stokes is a rarity in American fiction not just because of the circumstances that Strauss creates for her, but because of how resolutely he refuses to make her a caricature in any sense. Strong-willed and brilliant, Stokes is also obstinate, arrogant, and at times a terrible bore; neither saint nor victim, she is an actual person in a way that black female characters are rarely allowed to be. Strauss spends more time with Stokes than anybody else in the novel (this is a wildly uneven book in that sense, some major characters are dealt with in the shortest terms, while others are lavished over), following her from childhood through college and her short marriage to a Jewish man, who left her with a son.
By the time that the Goldins come crashing into her hospital and ignite a particularly New York-frenzied tabloid frenzy, Stokes is a woman who feels neither wanted or comfortable with either blacks or whites, and is practically daring somebody to question her medical judgment. Her hubris is quite well-earned, Achilles’ heel or not.
It’s in that white heat of cable news and local newspapers itching for a fight that Strauss’ narrative begins to fall apart. Highly comfortable comparing the similarly discomfited moods of Josh and Stokes as their sides (hospital, family, lawyers, reporters) line up on the battlefield, Strauss is less sure the further he delves into the arena of contemporary satire. His signifiers are all in the right place, the models of cars used and chain stores visited, but the commentary edges beyond pointed to obvious. One can see Strauss’ tendency to oversell the point in scenes like this one, after a Long Island newspaper publishes a story on the Goldin story:
Every few months the News-Independent would break a sweat in this way, throwing exhaustive “special reports” together. But their Munchausen package was the grandstand play of the year. Editors padded and kitsched up its 3400 words, in full tearjerk mode, with “candid” pictures of the Goldin family. The most affecting shot—mother and son on a swing set, cakey Rockwell colors—broke off what had been one fleeting playground moment and exalted it. Dori’s wistful smile, like her son’s sweet naïve laugh, got repackaged into a sacrament of such enduring and magical schmaltz you felt a pull at your heart. There was more.
There’s nothing poorly done or unskilled about passages like this one. Strauss sets a fine scene and his language is never less than vivid. But increasingly as the book goes on, the writing has a tendency to overstep its writ and splash extra commentary where none is needed. In the scene above, it’s perfectly clear that what he’s describing is schmaltz of the highest order, laying it out there as “a sacrament of such enduring and magical schmaltz you felt a pull at your heart” is nothing more than overkill.
For his enduringly humane portrayal of Stokes, and frequent jagged stabs of caustic humor, Strauss’ novel certainly deserves consideration. But it remains more a flawed, though vivid, character study than it is the grand and great American satire Strauss set out to create.