The Convalescent

Mike Pursley

Anyone thinking this book is Kafka meets Gummo with a side of Hungarian history would be right.

The Convalescent

Publisher: McSweeney's
Length: 240 pages
Author: Jessica Anthony
Price: $22.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2009-06

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”.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.