For 37-year-old kitchen manager Stevie, life is a strug (Stevie speak for struggle). She hurdles through her shift at Chappy’s—a middling Red Robin-esque chain restaurant (“resto”)—where a combination of mismanagement and lovably disgruntled staff with varying grasps on the English language guarantee that something or somebody will be broken beyond repair.
After putting out fires and flinging hot plates out to waves of ungrateful customers, Stevie hustles to her childhood home (“the bungalow”), where she must wrestle her dementia-suffering parents into pairs of clean Depends while mollifying their exasperated Filipina home-care aide with more money and empty promises. Upon days end, long-suffering Stevie limps through Toronto’s multi-ethnic Scarborough neighborhood to her apartment (“the dugout”) where she finds her PTSD-afflicted son Pierce in a scene like the following:
“…he thwacked his head, called himself a shitwad, and said he wanted to die. He hasn’t been to a barber in months and his greying hair and beard make him look closer to forty than twenty. Pacing and jabbing the air, he yanked at his Jesus loves you but everybody else thinks you’re a jerk T-shirt like it was skin he wanted to rip off. I stayed crouched on the floor, hoping he’d quiet down…Pierce flung open the fridge and, after a couple of beers, started blaming me for what a fuckup he is. Which is fine by me if it stops him beating up on himself, but it just draws attention to the fact that there is no one else—just us rejects hating on each other in the dugout” (6).
Beyond having to cope with the human remains he was assigned to process in Afghanistan, Pierce harbors a secret that is exasperating his post-war distress. For Stevie much of the time, the question is not if Pierce raped someone, but how many. Pierce’s tantrums and terror-induced imbibing only compound the revulsion Stevie has always felt for her son.
We learn early on that the cruelly named Pierce Many is the product of a gang rape inflicted on Stevie when she was a young teenager. Having had no one who would have believed her, young Stevie bore the child, passed him off to her then functional parents, and went on a decade long bender, from which she emerged disconnected from her child and her life, and in need of some quick cash.
When we meet Stevie at the beginning of the story, she is midway into her recovery, having found a sense of agency and autonomy, largely through her work at the resto. But how long can she survive living with Pierce before things end in a murder-suicide? And how long can the resto stay a place of security for Stevie when Chappy’s corporate office is bearing down on her and her irascible staff?
In this nearly 400-page novel, the answers don’t come quickly nor is it always clear what Cordelia Strube is trying to communicate through her side-characters’ abbreviation-filled diatribes of their sordid sexual and professional lives. In many ways, a reader of Misconduct of the Heart is like a customer made to wait for a halfway decent meal after which the well-meaning waiter promises a free dessert but forgets to bring it. The book’s plot is meandering and chaotic. This notwithstanding, in the chaos, the reader gets to know and sympathize with front and back-of-the-house staff and leaves endeared to them, almost despite the experience.
Though they are oftentimes buried by the overwhelming smorgasbord of characters, Misconduct of the Heart‘s core cast is comprised of difficult or unwanted children being tended to by reluctant parents still recovering from the abuse and neglect of their own childhoods. In this way, the story offers a compelling portrait of trauma survivors.
Stevie, for one, is a fascinating protagonist. In rare moments of downtime, she records fragments of thoughts on scraps of paper for a creative writing class. Narrated present-tense, first-person via Stevie, it could be said that the novel grows out from these unorganized journals or hers. In the vein Hannah Musgrave from Russell Banks’s The Darling (2004), Stevie is dogged, and principled in her soldiering through traumas on domestic and war-torn fronts. Though her anti-war commentary comes out overly on-the-nose and at seemingly inopportune times, Stevie’s language reflects the flippancy of someone whom life has treated as an afterthought—her parents, her supervisors, her lovers—yet her observations are profound.
“It just seems to me,” Stevie says to Pierce, “if we can’t express psychic pain, traumatic pain, broken heart pain, it shows up in other ways, and we get seriously messed up with depression and anxiety and all the other stuff you’re going through” (36).
Stevie can intellectually identify with and engage her son, yet she isn’t able to show him any physical or emotional tenderness because she’s held back by her own trauma. Her love of Pierce only manifests in fear, regret, and no-nonsense approaches to his behavior, none of which he responds to well. Verbal tussles between mother and son trigger their shared memories of Pierce as an unloved child. These scenes, to use Strube’s phrase, are “punishingly sad” (377), and drive the pair further apart.
As in a Russell Banks novel, individuals in Misconduct of the Heart recover their humanity outside the family. Pierce goes into the woods to help befriend and rehabilitate an old war buddy in even worse shape than he is. This allows a bereft Stevie to find love in unlikely places that enables her to fulfill roles that had previously eluded her. First, she becomes lovers with a handsome Gypsy busboy named Gyorgi. Though Gyorgi is similar in age to Pierce and is also the unloved product of a rape, his resilience despite his obvious vulnerabilities opens Stevie to romantic love.
In addition, when a drug-addicted mother with connections to Stevie’s family, abandons her little girl, Trudy, to the bungalow, Stevie gets the chance to be a mother to Trudy. By forming her own family out of a patchwork of strangers, Stevie’s able to put into order the misconduct of her heart.
Strube’s doubling of relational dynamics forms an intricate basketweave to cushion Stevie’s self-made family. These relational successes eventually give Stevie the inner strength to come to terms with her loathing of her own child. Strube is ultimately humanistic here, giving credence to individual strength and potential over biology and unfortunate circumstances. But her ultimate act to unpack her heart to Pierce is undercut in a wan climax that is characteristic of this novel’s self-defeating tendencies. However, in its glibness and lack of resolve, the novel is lifelike for so many survivors of trauma and their families.