Thursday, April 05, 2012

Fiction: The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac by Kris D'Agostino

I’m generally not a fan of single-family tragicomic novels in which the family in question is hit from all sides, only to emerge more or less triumphant at the end, rich with life lessons. (Maybe that makes me a bad person.)

Still, Kris D’Agostino’s The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac (Algonquin), a tragicomic novel in which one family is hit from all sides, only to emerge more or less triumphant at the end, rich with life lessons, is pretty damn good.

Narrated by Calvin Moretti, the middle child, the story is told in vignettes, all conveyed through his early-20s, pot-and-online-porn-induced malaise about his job, his prospects, his money, his relationships with his parents and sister and brother, and his life in general. Cal’s whole take on things is laid back to a fare-thee-well, and I got the feeling, while reading, that he might just as soon have stayed in bed all day and done nothing at all (that is, more pot and more porn). What keeps him going, it seems, is probably the desire to simply keep moving; like a shark, he knows that if he stops, he dies.

Cal’s dad, a sidelined airline pilot, is having serious health problems. His brother is either a shit or a nice guy, depending on the chapter. His sister, still in high school, announces she’s pregnant. And his mother, sometimes desperately, sometimes with a put-upon resignation, is just trying to keep it together -- “it” being herself sometimes, her family at others.

D’Agostino crafts these people with an unrelenting eye and ear for detail. Still, the more I read, the more I found myself frustrated by the very thing I liked. I felt for these people, but I wanted to take them all by the shoulders and shake them. Frankly, every last one of them needs a good spanking.

Cal works at school for special needs kids, and the scenes there are illuminating and heartbreaking. But oddly -- and certainly purposely -- the kid with the most special needs is Cal himself. The problem is, there’s really no one to help him through this black (and/or bleak) period of his life. Ambition has left him. His family is no longer what he thought it was. Neither is he. And the hits keep coming, leading this aren’t-families-funny novel inevitably to its aren’t-families-tragic ending.

I was shocked by the ending, but not surprised -- if that makes any sense. I knew it was coming, but I didn’t think D’Agostino would do it. It pulls too many heartstrings, it’s too deliberate, and this is something I thought he would shy away from. But like the book’s cover image, a house that pops up when you open the pages, unfolding before your eyes, The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac is a book that offers new bits of life’s cruel reality and unspeakable joy at every turn. ◊

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