Marc Schuster has and will continue to hold a high place on my shelf. His debut novel The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl wowed me to such such an extent that it became a catalyst of inspiration for my own writing. His literary abilities are phenomenal. He follows the rules when it comes to scene setting and character introductions, but maintains narrative originality so his prose is never stiff or forced. His writing style is dark but down to earth, silly but practical, and smart and hilarious all at once. I’ve been holding my breath for his sophomore novel, The Grievers, released in May, 2012 through The Permanent Press, and I can say with definitive certainty that Schuster has written another boundary-leaping novel.
The Grievers is the dark-humored and geeky story of Charley Schwartz, an aspiring PhD in Fine Arts man-boy scraping the bottom of the barrel for ambition. He is socially ambivalent but certain that he doesn’t want to deal with the hard facts of adulthood like change, death, and 9-5ing. While hiding behind the “I’m working on my dissertation” excuse, he takes a part-time job as a bank mascot: “Because doing something meant change. Because change meant growing up. Because growing up meant leaving so much behind…I wore a cynical mask to keep myself from getting too attached to anything, to protect myself from getting too involved, to distance myself from the living because in the end I knew the only thing that separated them from the dead was time and that everyone I loved would one day be gone. So I learned to turn everything into a joke—my friends, my job, my house, my life…”
Schuster’s writing style is uniquely engaging, it’s ridden with self-loathing and insecurity which surfaces in Charley’s internal monologue in the subtlest of ways: “The problem with Karen’s phrasing wasn’t so much the ‘working’ part or the ‘part-time’ part or even, surprisingly, the ‘bank’ part. The problem was with the preposition. To say that I was working in a bank was a gross overstatement that implied a necktie, a sweater vest, air conditioning, and a working knowledge of the most basic laws of mathematics. To say that I was working at a bank might be a step closer to the truth, but only a small step that left far too much open to the imagination. I might, for example, be mistaken for someone with the requisite training to carry a gun and prevent the occasional robbery. For that matter, I might also be mistaken for someone competent enough to push a broom or run a vacuum cleaner after everyone of consequence had gone home for the day. Plausible though any of these possibilities might have been for any other husband Karen’s mother could have imagined for her daughter, they were slightly above my pay grade. The real truth was that I worked in the general vicinity of a bank. Or, more accurately, on the bank’s front lawn.”
In addition to struggling with an overgrown quarter-life crisis, Charley finds himself tormented over the suicide of a former classmate. Having ignored and avoided his childhood friend, Billy Chin, the years following high-school, Charley feels the need to redeem himself by arranging a fundraising memorial in Billy’s memory: “I was honoring his memory because I should have been a better friend while he was still alive. I was selling my soul to save it.”
The novel’s chapters burst with such detail, symmetry, and natural order that they could stand alone as shorts or flash fictions without the need of introduction or finale. Furthermore, Schuster creates a mix of distinct secondary characters ranging from Charley’s distant yet caring wife, to his past classmates such as the ass-grabbing Greg Packer, a used car salesman who donates money in the form of IOUs and lives with his mother in her “Christmas room.” There are occasions when the dialogue comes off a bit too Tarantino-unrealistic, as in, no one would ever talk like this in real life. Take one of Packer’s many rambling passages: “…the wait staff might assume that the fallen comrade to which I alluded was also a police officer, and that, by extension, we’re all, like Dwayne, members of the force. This perception, false though it may be, will foster the impression that we are deserving of at least a modicum of recognition and, thus, that a table for twelve is a small price to pay for the privilege of serving us.” However, as the book wore on, I began to think Schuster wrote Greg Packer not unrealistically cliché, but more or less to prove clinical insanity.
My other criticism of this book is that I wish Schuster would have drawn out Charley’s quarter-life crisis and internalized angst, and focused more on this key character’s state of mind and less on the utter douchebaggery of his former class mates (like the douche, Packer). I felt these characters were over-emphasized and drew attention away from the more interesting secondary characters like Neil, Charley’s Marx Brothers-obsessed and protective best friend.
All in all, Schuster has an amazing sophomore novel on his hands. His writing has matured; he’s fine-tuned his approach and can effectively drive a story from start to finish with subtle tactics and engaging characterizations. Definitely pick up a copy of his sophomore novel, and follow him over at http://smallpressreviews.wordpress.com/