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Monday, Feb 04, 2013

Two novels about the sadness of contemporary families

Reviews of Antoine Wilson’s ‘Panorama City’ and Jami Attenberg’s ‘The Middlesteins’

By Jim Ruland
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During my early 20s, I worked as a night cook at a 24-hour fast-food restaurant in rural southwest Virginia. I met a lot of interesting characters during my time on the grill. There was a felon whose name on his driver’s license read “Bobert,” the unattractive sex addict who enjoyed getting busy in cold storage, the effeminate drug dealer who worked the drive-through window and the fry cook who liked to take LSD during his shift.

As a college student, I brought a lot preconceived notions about my “townie” co-workers. As I got to know them better, I came to appreciate the idiosyncratic ways in which they viewed the world. At first, I thought these quirks were a byproduct of a kind of life that was unavailable to me; but once we got to know one
another, our differences melted away like butter on a hot grill.

And so it goes with Oppen Porter, the childlike protagonist of Antoine Wilson’s second novel Panorama City.

After the sudden death of his father, Oppen moves from bucolic Madera to Panorama City—a suburb in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles. Though Panorama City is just a few miles from the Hollywood Hills, it might as well be in Fresno—or a strip mall anywhere in California for that matter.

Oppen has been sent to live with his aunt, who gets him a job at an unidentified “fastfood” restaurant. Although Oppen is a grown man, he possesses a naïveté that often gets him into trouble. He’s a poor judge of character, yet thinks the best of everyone he meets. Predictably, his views are often out of sync with those around him. For instance, he sees his trip to Panorama City as a chance to “become a man of the world,” whereas his aunt believes she’s rescuing him from being Madera’s “village idiot.”

Neither is entirely right or entirely wrong, and therein lies the conflict. Things go relatively well until Oppen gets promoted from “floater,” a job he later discovers is reserved for employees with special needs, to “fry guy,” a move that initiates a new set of problems.

“With great freedom comes great responsibility, someone said once, well, it doesn’t work the other way around.”

When he falls under the influence of a con artist named Paul Renfro, Oppen’s aunt tries to get him back on track by sending him to the Lighthouse Fellowship, a Christian outreach center. Oppen, confused by the fellowship’s logo, is swayed by his new friend’s hilarious warning.

“The most perverse message a lighthouse could ever deliver, Paul’s words, is come here and be saved.”

While Oppen’s unconventional outlook takes some getting used to, Panorama City will leave you charmed by its generous humor.

Fast food also plays a prominent role in Jami Attenberg’s latest book, The Middlesteins, a novel about a family in crisis.

The Middlesteins are a big, sprawling messy family filled with unruly kids, helicopter parents, unstable aunts and grandparents with plenty of tricks up their sleeves. It’s the kind of family that feels real and full of life, yet one we seldom encounter in fiction. You know why there are so many orphans in literary fiction? Because writing about families is hard. Attenberg makes it look easy.

In the middle of The Middlesteins is Edie, a larger-than-life character whose largeness is the central problem of the book.

“Edie came and she conquered, laying waste to every morsel.... Eleven seafood dumplings, six scallion pancakes, five pork buns, the pounds of noodles and shrimp and clams and broccoli and chicken.”

In the chapters devoted to Edie, we’re told not how old she is, but how much she weighs. Edie as a precocious, 62-pound kid. Edie at 160 pounds and at the height of her sexual power. Edie in serious decline at a whopping 332 pounds.

One of the most compelling aspects of The Middlesteins is its Dos Passos-like structure. We get to know each family member through a chapter presented from their point-of-view, and then we move on. Edie and her husband Richard are the only characters who rate multiple chapters.

While this one-and-done approach means we only get one glimpse of each character’s point of view, most factor into stories told in other chapters. We get to know Robin, Edie’s daughter, early in the novel as a young woman on her own, but we eventually meet her again as an aunt and yet again as grieving mother.

In a family, one is many things to many people. A lovable brother is also a reckless son, a feckless husband and a doting uncle. With Edie, Attenberg has created a character who looms large in the imagination and is all but impossible to forget. 

Jim Ruland blogs at vermin.blogs.com and you can find him on Twitter @JimVermin.




 
 
 
 
 
 
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