On Being Up a Creek with Only a Paddle

[17 April 2014]

By Michael Antman

Why do so many men cheat on the women in their lives?  It might have something to do with the fact that a disconcertingly large proportion of women seem to be helplessly attracted to precisely the kind of men that appear most capable of cheating on them, even as they hope and trusts that, in their own particular case—and due solely and satisfyingly to their own insinuating love and overwhelming sexual allure—this time, the men actually won’t cheat.

There’s a male character in Love Is a Canoe, the new novel by Ben Schrank, that appears from page one to fit the bill of a future cheater, so it’s no surprise at all when, a few flirtations with a fellow worker later, he does. His name is Eli, and he’s “still a big kid” (aren’t they all?) who smells “like iron and oil from his bicycle factory” (he’s a bicycle-manufacturing entrepreneur, so he’s iron-bound but irreproachably green at the same time!), and has “legs like tree trunks” and “dark hair that he wore a little long and his eyes were brown but sometimes she saw them flash violet.”

“She”, in this case, is Emily Babson, a beautiful and brilliant branding consultant, upon whom the unexpected (by her) and totally expected (by us, the reader) infidelity is visited. We like her almost from the novel’s beginning because she means well, and because being attracted to someone partly because he seems the type likely to cheat isn’t, of course, as bad as actually cheating. 

Love is a Canoe is a good-natured, diverting and only mildly cynical satire about what happens when Emily decides not to take her husband’s infidelity lying down—though she and he do a fair amount of that as well in an effort to screw their wedding vows back to the sticking place. Principally, however, she chooses to fight.

Did I mention that Emily and her bicycle-building husband live in an “oversize limestone townhouse” in Brooklyn?  Did I need to? Would Picador have published this novel if Eli were a nuclear submarine engineer in Jacksonville with mullet-like tendencies and Emily a moderately overweight day care worker? Indeed, in almost every respect, this is a novel of and from and by that most provincial of all subcultures, the New York publishing industry. (The author himself, incidentally, doubles as the president and publisher of a Penguin imprint.) 

Thus, Emily and Eli’s potential marital salvation comes in the form of a publishing industry publicity gimmick designed to revive the fortunes of a yellowed-at-the-edges former bestseller, a collection of wheezy, well-meaning and utterly useless marriage advice from the ‘60s itself called Love Is a Canoe. This self-help book is still in print, though barely, and an ambitious young editor named Stella Petrovic hits upon the not-bad idea to sponsor a contest, marking the 50th anniversary of the book’s debut, for couples with troubled marriages. 

The winners (or “winners”) get to spend one day with the dog-eared author of Love Is a Canoe, Peter Herman, for “home-cooked meals and homespun advice.” Yikes. That Herman is an affable phony who never wrote another book, and barely even wrote Love Is a Canoe, goes unmentioned in the publicity materials.

Emily and Eli end up winning, thanks to a heartfelt entry by Emily, who truly wants to save her marriage, but the contest is about as flimsy as an ancient birchbark canoe. This fact redounds on Eli and Emily, of course, but also on Stella, and on the widowed Peter and the new woman in his life, and on Helena Magursky, the president and CEO of Peter Herman’s publisher, Ladder & Rake Books. 

Helena, who appears to be modeled closely on the character Meryl Streep overplayed in that movie where she ostentatiously treats Anne Hathaway like a piece of gum she has to scrape off of her Manolo Blahniks, has some surprising connections of her own to Love Is a Canoe and to Peter, who’s also prone to getting prone with women other than his wife. The ripples of both of these genial frauds—the original self-help book and the contest itself—eventually threaten to swamp pretty much everyone.

Schrank deserves much credit for turning this premise into a buoyant entertainment. He’s brave enough to include excerpts from the rather ridiculous Love Is a Canoe and somehow convince us that this silly and insubstantial book could have been a bestseller, not to mention a continuing influence on a sophisticate like Emily. He makes Peter Herman, Emily, Eli, Stella and all the others seem like real people with real problems and genuinely pathetic delusions, just like the rest of us – including the delusion that 50 years after he lucked out with his one big bestseller, Peter Herman would have anything at all worth saying that would bail out a floundering young couple’s marriage. In the end, all of them get their just marital and professional deserts anyway, with the “Love is a Canoe” anniversary contest being at best merely a catalyst and, in some ways, closer to a MacGuffin as regards the disposition of the characters’ lives. 

As far as the eponymous novel by Schrank, it may not have any startling statements to make about contemporary marriage or the publishing industry, but the medium-sized observations it does make, especially about how people will latch onto any bit of floating debris to salvage their sinking relationships, are sincere, affecting and amusing.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/180802-love-is-a-canoe-by-ben-schrank/