Funny as a Tumor
In Paul Mauro, writer Matt Marinovich may have created one of the most immediately unlikable antiheroes in some time. Self-centered, manipulative, selfish, and an outright liar, Paul is a defiantly self-aware creep whose petulant justifications for his behavior are increasingly hollow, and Strange Skies walks a tightrope of bothering the reader with Paul’s behavior and making his actions recognizable enough to reflect the meanly opportunistic in all of us.
Paul is introduced to us in the middle of a dual crisis: a cancer scare, and a wife who wants to have children. Of the two, Paul is infinitely more worried about the latter, seeing in his brother’s own family the life of the living dead, with children as not only leeching freedom, but grace and dignity as well. The troublesome presence of a lump on his arm seems negligible in comparison.
At first, Paul is able to deflect his wife Lee’s desires with the fatalism of cancer, arguing that it would be criminal to start a family in the face of imminent death. This ploy seems successful—that is, until Paul’s doctor informs him that the tumor in his arm is benign and he’s healthy. Paul’s conceit is that he’s actually disappointed. But when Alex, a beautiful fellow patient who’s just been handed a death sentence, mistakes him for a victim and Paul realizes that a simple lie will lead to sex, he sets in motion a series of events that leads Paul further and further into the depths of exploitation.
In scenes that are improbably uncomfortable, Paul seems to briefly have it made. Alex turns out to be a wealthy mistress, lavishing money on their affair and capable of the kind of sex that is only possible with the fear of mortality lurking under every touch—something Paul knows he cannot truly share, but he lies about it well enough. By lying about his condition, Paul is able to forestall all of Lee’s talk about children, tell off the sycophantic coworker he’s been unable to shake, quit his job, and live life for himself alone. He’s quick to learn the abusive possibilities of sympathy, and even plays the cancer card while he and his wife are at another couple’s house for dinner, securing himself the most food during the meal and then seducing the wife. By playing on the very real sympathies of others, Paul’s falsehood allows him to be as selfish as he ever wanted to be and get away with it, and if he ever starts to feel a pang of guilt, he suppresses it rapidly and ruthlessly.
Karmic retribution is swift, however, and Marinovich doesn’t let Paul wallow in self-congratulatory hedonism for long. When Alex, feeling the very real despair of her very real disease, commits suicide by jumping from her high-rise balcony, Paul is stunned into considering actual consequences. But where this might be a turning point for some other story, it only serves to make Paul try even harder to escape. Begging off some vacation time away from his wife to sort his thoughts and find himself on the sandy beaches of St. John in Virgin Islands, Paul’s flight from New York is cancelled, then diverted to Minneapolis, and he is thrust into the life of Jack, child leukemia patient, and his mother Barb. As the events unfold, Paul has his nose broken by an NFL star, is trapped in a hotel room with a child, is left to die in the snow by same NFL star, has run ins with a psychotic ex-husband, and finds out that Lee was having an affair with the man whose wife Paul had seduced. Oh yeah, and finds out that his initial condition had spread, and he does have terminal cancer after all.
Despite the chain of nasty events that Paul endures, this book is less about a selfish prick getting his comeuppance as it about him finding a resource of caring for others, even as he tried in vain to fight it. As Paul becomes sucked into orbit around Jack and Barb, his perspectives shift. The self-awareness that Paul exhibited as a narrator justifying the shitty things he did to others becomes a voice trying to deny pure motives. Even as he begins to truly want to help Jack, he fends off accusations of tenderness by trying to convince the reader that he’s just trying to get into Barb’s pants. And without spoiling it all here, Marinovich doesn’t try to fabricate a happy ending out of this story, but he does offer Paul a chance at redemption. Whether he’s earned it depends on how willing you are to forgive everything that came before.
It seems strange, however, that most of the advance response to this book has focused on how funny it is. Marinovich certainly has a sense of humor, and there’s a kind of savage satire at play here, as well as some great wit in the writing, but it’s a cringe-inducing humor. It’s not a tough-guy brutality, but it’s cynical and sharp, and the fact that Paul is so deliberately hard to embrace keeps the laughs at a distance. When bad things happen to Paul, it’s tempting to cheer because he deserves it, but everything carries the promise of epiphany, and you can’t help but feel a little sorry for him when it doesn’t resolve. That play with notions of sympathy and the way it allows both Paul to manipulate the characters in the story and the book to manipulate the investment of the reader is deftly managed. And more than any attempts to be funny, that seems to be the core of this story.
It’s worth mentioning that it’s something of a shame that Paul’s anti-children stance is subsumed by his genuine feelings for Barb and Jack. Despite the cynicism and satire at work, there are some cogent arguments made against the culturally enforced template of parenting that many people accept as the one and only true way to live life. That fighting that template leads Paul to an atrocious lie and a life of manipulation reveals the desperation that template can cause, and though Paul never winds up with the kind of family he was running from, the resolution of those feelings in his attachment to Jack kind of undercuts what is an interesting and under-represented perspective. Still, Marinovich doesn’t cop out and resort to a Hallmark adoption story, so it’s not all a loss.
It’s also recommended that readers who pick up the Harper Perennial edition read the “P.S.” section of author insights at the end, lest it seem like Marinovich is turning cancer into a joke. There it’s revealed that he endured the same cancer scare that Paul first faces, and that his dwelling on the implications led him to take it very seriously. Paul is simply the fictionalized projection of what would have happened had he turned right when he actually turned left.
In the end, Strange Skies is a tough read—not because it’s inaccessible, but because it’s so hard to gauge how much of your sympathies to lend to it. In fact, it’s an engaging book and a solid first novel by a talented writer, but you want to keep Paul Mauro at an arm’s length, keenly aware of just how disturbingly manipulative he is.