The strengths of a good “summer read” are seen first and foremost when the text in question can overcome the implications of that label. The seemingly endless cycle of thick volumes that populate airport book kiosks, chain newsstands, or the few viable bookstores appear with flashy covers and enticing titles. They promise escape during dog days when opportunity allows the mind to fully embrace tawdry sexual escapades, international intrigue, or yet another entry in a bestselling series from your favorite detective or secret agent. We may feel “guilty” if we enjoy these books before Memorial Day and after Labor Day, but that rarely lessens the level of the enjoyment.
In Randall Klein‘s Little Disasters, the negative implications of a summer read guilty pleasure are balanced by the strengths of the narrative. This is contemporary literary fiction that will linger in your mind for many reasons, not least among them the full control and careful balancing act he executes from the first page through to the end. It’s July, 2009, a year before the “present day” section.The lives of Michael Gould and his wife Rebecca intersect at a hospital with those of Paul Fennick and his wife Jennifer as the four prepare to deliver their first babies. There’s joy for the first couple yet heartbreak for the second.
Flash to a year later. There’s been some sort of terrorist attack in New York City during an unbearably hot July. Michael is above ground, trying to navigate from one part of the city home to another. Paul is below, out of the train in which he’d been a passenger, wandering the dark tunnels with fellow travelers trying to find his way to safety.
In most other hands this would make for a strong and compelling narrative, given the plot line of a possible dirty bomb act of terrorism hitting New York City in 2010. Klein, however, exercises complete control over location, whether its focus is on Michael on the ground or Paul in the tunnels. It’s the power of fatherhood that compels us to stay with Michael. Certainly, he willingly enters into infidelity with Jenny shortly after she and Paul hired him to do some construction at their place. She’s mourning the loss of the child she’d had with Paul, and he’s wandering from his marriage for reasons he might not understand. It’s the initial blush of joy he’s feeling as a father that makes us want more:
If the plague swept through the streets they [his wife and child] could breathe with my indestructible lungs… I’d destroy the world to keep this scene intact.
Such proclamations usually don’t have a longer shelf life than the time it takes for the words to come out of the mouth, and Michael moves on. Little Disasters is many things, a love affair with a pre-gentrified Brooklyn, a horror story about a physical attack from the world beyond, and the temptations of no strings attached sexual relations. During the early times, the honeymoon period, the love between Michael and Rebecca is still strong:
We’re the last four minutes of ‘Hey Jude,’ the coda everyone sings along with because they know the words and the tune. No surprises, only the comfort of shared experience.
Of course, the only experience these four people cannot equally understand is the unspeakable grief of losing a child. The Michael and Rebecca story is interesting, compelling, and the reader doesn’t feel an obligation to judge him too harshly as he enters the world of infidelity. Paul sees his wife as “…an emotional sniper… beautiful and deadly…” Klein’s structure at this point (as it is throughout) is admirably controlled and precise. Take the initial moment, the dinner in four courses as the still grieving Jenny explains to the others her love for Paul:
When I cut him up into small parts I can hold him up to the light and scrutinize each lovely piece…
It’s a skillful, extended homage to Edward Albee‘s 1962 play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Michael considers that they will either “…go the full George-and-Martha…” or not. “Either way, I’m getting dinner and a show.”
Paul grieves in his own way. He confided anonymously about the loss to others in chat rooms while almost simultaneously seeking sexual favors and gratification of all sorts from any willing listener. It’s this emotional infidelity, combined with the fact that Michael and Jenny are carrying on a purely physical affair, that makes Paul a somewhat more sympathetic character. Klein clearly wants us to avoid casting moral judgement on these characters and understand that the given circumstances (loss of a child and an unknown external threat) can make people react in many surprising ways.
It’s not beyond the reader to embrace the skillful and carefully choreographed brilliance of the extended metaphor having Paul underground during the terrorist threat. Everything he’s been hiding (the internet confessionals and sexual dalliances) lives and breathes beneath the surface:
We see our city laid to waste… In our mind’s ears we hear sirens… tonight there will be a chasm of sadness… The knowledge of what has happened above us shortens our steps on this cautious walk… The tunnel is collapsing.
Things are no less hopeful for Michael, though, as he wanders through the terrestrial devastation: “I’m a dying animal, panting and lumbering toward a cool, dark corner in which to die.” Michael has sought solace in this sexual relationship with Jennifer, but the excuses get flimsy and the fortress of stability they were meant to represent quickly crumble.
Rebecca experiences heartbreak and loss in her family, but that doesn’t seem to balance out the fear and loathing all the characters are feeling. It’s easier to connect with a grieving Paul, who rationalizes his secret subterranean online life by saying “No one can tell from your font whether you are crying, or raging. Being a grieving father gets significantly easier when it’s a skin you can shed every time you log off.”
There are some major strengths throughout Little Disasters, a debut novel brimming with self-assurance and confidence. It’s a novel of scenes, sketches, fully realized moments balanced between time frames. The present-day terrorist threat is contrasted with the happenings of a year prior, and a few points in between. One of the key moments that could represent the entire story happens in the final third of the novel. Michael is still wandering through the city, taking careful account of everything he sees:
A man stands fifty feet past the entrance of the… Queensboro Bridge and he shrieks at the top of his lungs, ‘What are they not telling us?’ Every word gets its own exclamation point. His eyes aren’t even wide. ‘What aren’t they telling us?’ he shouts over and over again.
Nothing is resolved, forgotten, or forgiven by the end of Little Disasters and there’s no need for easy resolutions. That’s not how real life works. This is a gripping, compelling story that won’t be diminished if stuffed in beach bags or chosen for light Book Club discussions. From the ruins of little disasters can come small wonders and the promise of more from a writer fully in control of his narrative vision.