‘Mr. Peanut’: Malice in Marriage

Adam Ross’ debut novel, Mr. Peanut, is one of those novels that comes with a great deal of hype attached to it. It has blurbs from genre masters Stephen King and Richard Russo, which probably helped buoy the book onto The New York Times bestseller list earlier this summer. There also seems to be just no getting away from this book, either. I’ve seen it in window displays in both a large big box retailer and a fiercely independent bookstore. This is a book that booksellers clearly want you to read.

However, this might be a novel that people want you to read for the wrong reason. It’s being marketed as a bit of a police procedural, a whodunit that would be perfect for lying on the beach while soaking up rays. The book, though, is actually a bit of a different beast. It’s a long mediation about the darker side of marriage, and feels like a bunch of short stories and a novella tucked into a longer narrative. It is an ambitious book that plays with form, and has a fascination with Möbius strips – and actually plays out like one. At least at first, it seems to have a kinship with the metafictional detective tale of Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, in that both works have a sense of playfulness with form. However, Ross’ work never truly takes off: it merely stays mired in the failings of marriage without anything resembling an in-depth look at why some people are so unhappy in their unions.

There are essentially three stories in Mr. Peanut. The framing story involves David and Alice Pepin, a couple which has been married for 13-years after meeting in a class dissecting the movies of Alfred Hitchcock. Their marriage doesn’t appear, at first, to be on the rocks, even though Alice has a propensity for depression and David is deeply immersed in designing video games and writing his own novel to the point of almost withholding on his wife. However, the cracks start to show as the novel wears on: Alice has suffered from numerous miscarriages and has gone on binge diets to control her weight and her lack of self-confidence, and David has gone so far as to take a mistress in a co-worker, seemingly bored with his domestic situation.

David, at the start of the novel, even begins to have visions of Alice dying a truly horrible death. And, guess what? She eventually does. The cops think that it is murder, but David protests that the death was actually a suicide – Alice is found dead at a dinner table beside a plate of peanuts, which she’s allergic to – even though the evidence seems to point in the contrary.

The other two stories revolve around the police detectives working the case: Ward Hastroll, which is an anagram for Lars Thorwald, the wife-killer in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, has a spouse who is putting a strain on their relationship for simply refusing to budge from her bed for months. (This actually begs the question: how does she eat and go to the bathroom? This is something that the novel never answers.) The other detective is one Sam Sheppard, who was originally an Ohio physician who was wrongly convicted of killing his wife in the mid-‘50s. Sheppard is actually a real-life character, one who purportedly served as the inspiration for the ‘60s TV series The Fugitive as well as the ‘90s movie starring Harrison Ford.

It’s with the parallel stories of the two detectives that Mr. Peanut starts to unspool. Sheppard’s story is the most problematic in that, if you can buy into the fact that the character makes a career change and is allowed to do so despite being put behind bars (however wrongly), he is probably pushing 80-years-old by the time he gets around to the Pepin case! His appearance here as a police detective just doesn’t work just because it is so unbelievable, despite Ross’ attempt to be reflexive of popular culture.

The Sheppard back-story, which takes up at least a third of the book, is also probably the weakest aspect. Sheppard stays married to his wife, but takes up with a mistress in a hospital co-worker, whose relationship is on-again, off-again at best. We never get a sense of what attracted Sheppard to his wife or his mistress, or what is fueling his coital ambitions. After a while, one grows so weary of the story that you wish that some dark stranger would step out of the bushes with a tire iron and put an end to his misery.

Another problem with Mr. Peanut is that Ross apparently doesn’t understand women all that well, and the novel seems almost misogynistic at times. Alice Pepin, in particular, is shrill and readers don’t get any sense of what would make her attractive to anyone. Sheppard’s wife also sits idly by and lets her husband basically run around on her, despite the fact that she makes googly eyes at the housecleaner.

Ross’ mistresses in this novel are also just as stereotyped: what we have here are alluring ’40-style noir femme fatales, who seemingly offer the possibility of escape but wind up being just as annoying as those women that the men are married to. The female characterizations are exceeding one note, possibly as a result of the novel being so finely attuned to the masculinity posed by the three male protagonists. Ross would have had a much stronger novel had he introduced some color into his female characters, instead of simply portraying women as shrews who destroy the freedom that these men crave. In fact, I often wondered why Ross’ protagonists just didn’t go out and get divorces, instead of waiting for their spouses to die – which is obviously a metaphor for the state of a marriage gone wrong to the ultimate extreme.

Mr. Peanut might be best enjoyed by those who are trapped in a marriage that has gone bitter, or those who like their novels to have all sorts of stylistic twists and turns. It’s a smart novel and one that can be considered – dare I say? – well-written. Ross certainly proves with this book that he has a glimmer of talent in the way that his male characters are rarefied and honed, and one does get the sense that the book took a long time to piece together, allegedly nearly 15 years.

However, Mr. Peanut is all sizzle and no steak. We never get a sense of what made these characters fall in love and what seemed to be the ultimate problem in their marriages in the first place. It’s as though Ross is sitting at a piano plucking the same discordant note over and over again, which grows tiresome as the novel progresses.

Mr. Peanut is also a novel without a clear-cut ending; Ross actually gives us multiple climaxes, which makes the book fail as a police procedural. We never get a true sense of what actually happened to Alice Peppin. By novel’s end, one really doesn’t care, either, considering that the characters are so rote and unappealing.

Mr. Peanut is akin to a dinner that’s merely a bunch of nuts on a plate, hardly filling and hardly fulfilling. If one is looking for a taunt, suspenseful entertainment, you would be best advised to go back to the masters: Hitchcock, or ’40s film noir.

RATING 3 / 10