Since the huge commercial and critical success of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” by Mark Haddon, there has been a slight trend towards novels that use a main character with a degree of mental distinctiveness. Matthew Quick's previous and debut work of adult fiction “The Silver Linings Playbook” (also a deserved Oscar award-winning film) focused on a central protagonist with bi-polar disorder and in this new book too the narrator is a hyper-observer who struggles with being in touch with what can be called objective reality.
Bartholomew Neil is highly intuitive as well. He is approaching middle age and now has to live without his mother, who had been a constant figure of reassurance in his domestic routines. Writing very personal letters to Richard Gere (his mother's favourite actor) helps him express his thoughts and fortunately for him there is vital human contact at hand in the form of a whiskey priest and Wendy, a young trainee psychologist. When Bartholomew starts (very) small group therapy as grief counselling he befriends another colourful character in the form of Max, who is an almost constant user of the F---- word and obsessed by the idea of aliens. Along with Max's sister, they have a few adventures and mercifully, the story ends.
Having thought that Silver Linings Playbook was one of the best films I've seen for a few years, I was genuinely looking forward to reading Quick's latest offering. I was sorely disappointed. It is an easy read mainly because the author is a superb composer of seemingly authentic dialogue but that is not enough for me. I simply get nothing (except a repeated feeling of exasperation) from putting up with the half-baked theories of invented people. The homilies and pieces of homespun “wisdom” that fill each chapter are often painful. “Mom always used to say,” explains Bartholomew “that for every bad thing that happens, a good thing happens too - and this is how the world stayed in harmony.” Combine this kind of Forest Gump-style simplistic nonsense with the main character's reliance on the obvious common sense quotes of the apparently reincarnated Dalai Lama and supposed cases of Jung's synchronicity in his and other's lives and the effect on this reader was to create the desire to put the book down and not pick it up again.
To be fair though, Quick's portrayal of modern North America is not all flawed. He shows it to be as religious and superstitious as much of it almost certainly is: a part of the planet where millions of people pray instead of thinking hard or getting honest with themselves. In the first nine pages of the book there are at least half a dozen pointed references to faith, saints, holiness, divinity, the bible and miracles. Quick gives us a glimpse into a populace that is one of the most god-bothering in the developed world but is, ironically, so spiritually confused. He depicts hard-drinking men, casual police cruelty and the kind of neighbours most of us will fortunately never have. As with his previous work of fiction, there is the threat of violence often present in the background - even in the same places where there is also a strong sense of community.
If nothing else, this book gives a sometimes entertaining example of how the human mind instinctively looks for patterns and is often comforted by them.