[29 July 2009]
The Convalescent is a strange little novel about a strange little man. Jessica Anthony’s curious and charming debut follows hard luck pariah Rovar Ăkos Pfliegman, “the last remaining descendant of a line of the worst sort of losers on the planet”, through his many tribulations, painful remembrances, and bewildering changes.
Rovar is a nice enough dude, but with his diminutive stature, hobbled knee, and flaky skin has basically zilch going on in the looks department. His attire, which consists of an oversized pink Disneyworld sweatshirt and a “Coat of Thieves” (it’s a Hungarian thing, you wouldn’t understand), along with a booming career selling meat out of a bus do little to improve his social standings. To add insult to injury, Rovar can’t talk.
Like many isolated misfits he finds solace in books, though his personal library makes a saggy shelf of Goodwill paperbacks look like Borders. His collection consists of books about pet hamsters, water polo, Hungarian history, a French dictionary, Darwin’s Origin of the Species, and Isaac Asimov’s The Collapsing Universe. Rovar attaches special significance to his grab bag of books, and tells us, “these books came to me, instead of me to them”.
Obviously Rovar, who identifies himself as “this withered cretin, this gimp, this half-finished mold” has a few issues. His health is in shambles and his childhood strife would take years of therapy to unpack. It would be enough to deal with even if poor Rovar were left alone to peddle his meat and ponder. Unfortunately, Anthony tightens her protagonist’s vice of suffering even more when the Subdivisionists (a weird quasi-governmental group who dress sharply and have enormous chins) come on the scene. They aren’t there to buy steak—they want Rovar’s land.
Luckily, Rovar isn’t without friends. Mrs. Kipner is a giant beetle he feeds tomatoes and Marjorie is a tall blade of grass. Companions of a more human nature include a transient Indian who sells blankets, Mister Bis the grocer, and the object of tiny Rovar’s deepest want and most vivid fantasies: Dr. Monica, a pediatrician who kindly agrees to treat his manifold afflictions. Dr. Monica’s office is where all the convalescing goes down, and although our long suffering narrator’s physical health improves, he’s soon hopelessly in love.
These unlikely characters and events are only half of what makes The Convalescent such a ride. While Anthony is detailing Rovar’s ills and infatuations, she’s also busy boomeranging her readers back to early Hungarian history to profile an unknown 11th tribe of the Ural Mountains: the Pfliegmans. They are a grubby, backwards, and dim people. They are a clan cursed by history and Rovar shares their lineage and all the strife that’s included.
Though an ocean and a millennium separate Rovar from his distant ancestors several interesting parallels begin to appear. Like Rovar, the early Pfliegmans live in a field by a river and work as butchers. And who doesn’t know Rovar’s home state of Virginia is about the same size as present-day Hungary? When he reads in Asimov that gravity is the weakest cosmic force, the idea connects to his pitiful ancestors in a mysterious “meek shall inherit the Earth” kind of way. Anthony’s forays into the medieval Pfliegman past are dexterously styled and written in a startling, slapstick magic realism.
Anyone thinking The Convalescent is Kafka meets Gummo with a side of Hungarian history would be right. Anthony has a great knack for piling on the weird. Just when some type of baseline is achieved she’ll blindside once more with some serious oddness. Her writing can be as colorful and arresting as a butcher’s window or relayed with a cool deadpan that nimbly slips in for a delayed onset shock. The novel achieves its uniqueness in a gradual, boiled-frog-in-a-heated-pot sort of way.
It’s probably due to this slow-roasted setup that the ending feels rushed. The people from Rovar’s books come to life, the Subdivisionists smash his bus, his skin begins to peel at an alarming rate. It seems to end too hastily, which honestly is pretty small gripes for a debut novel as synapse tingling as this. Anthony has made one for the world’s invisible outcasts. Her show of solidarity is best encapsulated by Rovar himself, who says, “I may be sick. I may come from a hole in the ground. My best friend may be an insect. But at least I don’t live decent society”.