After coming dangerously close to blowing hot coffee out of my nose while reading Steve Almond’s Not That You Asked, I decided to dive a little deeper into his (sure to be twisted) oeuvre. Swimming around, I bumped into this book, a novel of letters co-written by sometime (and, as quickly becomes apparent, sometimes not) children’s book author Julianna Baggott.
It’s a conceit that could have ended up too clever by half, but is so well handled that I kicked myself for not thinking of it first. The story begins—like most Hugh Grant movies—at a wedding. I was hooked after the very first line: “I know my own kind. We’re obvious to each other. I suppose this is true of other kinds, too: military brats, for example, anarchists, mattress salesmen, women who got ponies as birthday gifts.”
Jane ruminates while spying John standing under a white crepe paper wedding bell “My own kind. I’m not sure there’s a name for us. I suspect we’re born this way: our hearts screwing in tight, already a little broken. We hate sentimentality and yet we’re deeply sentimental.” Sound like anyone you know?
The two are drawn to each other like cracked magnets—repelling those they should be attracting, yet powerless to avoid the collision with their harmonious defect. After a furtive and aborted liaison in a cloakroom—the pair pulls apart long enough to realize that hooking up with a stranger under a bunch of outerwear would be a mutual mistake in two long, sad trains of mistakes—they hatch a plan to exchange letters confessing their respective tragic love lives. The sense that both of them know that this encounter just may be their last best chance permeates the already stuffy coat check.
“Absolutely,” he says. “Real letters. Ink. Paper. The whole deal. We’ll be like the pioneers, waiting by our windows for the Pony Express. In bonnets.”
John kicks things off with the story of Jodi Dunne, his first love at sixteen. Almond nails the tentative stirrings of romance fighting against the poison tide of peer and familial pressure, social awkwardness, and “erotic incompetence” that make up everyone’s high school years.
Almond’s doppelganger proves his commitment to the spirit of full disclosure by recounting an unfortunate (and nearly geometrically impossible) incident wherein he ejaculates into his own mouth and gives himself, “as known in porn circles,” the Pirate Eye. Now, if I hadn’t read Almond’s harrowing tales of his own sexual awakening, I would have called gratuitous bullshit and might have given up on this character, but that would have been a mistake.
Jane fires back with her tale of Asbury Park boys and a brooding and doomed muscle car driving boyfriend, and we’re off to the races. “Michael Hanrahan was something that I hoped would happen. In fact, I hoped he’s go off like a bomb in my life, obliterating most everything except me, still standing, albeit charred and dizzy.”
By the time we find them back at the wedding, “charred and dizzy” describes the state of both characters having weathered romantic disaster after romantic disaster. Will they be able to put it all behind them and start anew, one more time? Or are their respective personnel files too stuffed with abject failure to recommend advancement? Come to think of it, get Hugh Grant’s agent on the phone!