Friday, July 9, 2010

Salty goodness.


Adam Ross' first novel, Mr. Peanut, was probably guaranteed success when, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King said it gave him nightmares. It's a chilling, perplexing, tightly crafted book, and a great effort from a first-time novelist. But, in one of those fiction-stranger-than-truth cliches, the real life of one of Ross' characters is weirder than what happens to him in Mr. Peanut.

In 1954, Dr. Sam Sheppard was convicted of murdering his wife, Marilyn. Pregnant with their second child, Marilyn was beaten to death in the upstairs bedroom of their home in Bay Village, Ohio. The case was a media sensation; the Sheppards were wealthy and attractive, and it was revealed that Dr. Sheppard had carried on a three year long affair with a nurse at the hospital where he worked. Dr. Sheppard's claim of having been knocked unconscious (twice) by a "bushy-haired" mystery man weren't bought by the jury, which convicted him.

Dr. Sheppard spent a decade in jail. While incarcerated, his mother shot herself, his father died of a bleeding ulcer, and his father-in-law killed himself. In 1966, the Supreme Court reviewed his case and overturned his conviction, arguing that the extensive media coverage and biased jury had denied him due process.

Sheppard was released, and then things got really weird. Three days after being freed, Sheppard married a German woman who had written to him while he was in jail. His new bride was the half-sister of Joseph Goebbels' wife. She divorced him three years later, claiming domestic abuse.

Meanwhile, Sheppard appeared on the Johnny Carson show, co-wrote a book about his trial, and went back to practicing medicine, only to be sued for malpractice by the families of two patients who had died in his care. He then became a professional wrestler and nicknamed himself "The Killer." He married the twenty-year-old daughter of his wrestling partner, and promptly died six months later of liver failure due to alcoholism.

Sheppard's son, Sam "Chip" Sheppard, who also appears in Mr. Peanut, tried to exonerate his father, including suing the state of Ohio for wrongful imprisonment on his father's behalf. Chip Sheppard blamed his family's handyman, Dick Eberling, for Marilyn's murder, which may not have been that far-fetched, considering that Eberling was conveniently sitting in prison for murdering an elderly woman whose house he had maintained, and both of the woman's sisters had died in suspicious circumstances - one had been beaten to death by an unknown assailant, the other fell down the stairs in their shared house, managing to break all four limbs in the process.

Which is just a rather long-winded way of saying that the weirdest plot a writer can think of doesn't compare to how bizarre life actually is sometimes. Compared to Sheppard's real life, Ross' alternate reality - Dr. Sheppard appears as a police detective - seems rather banal.

That aside, Mr. Peanut is a great read. Ross claims the central death (murder? suicide?) was inspired by a true story related to him by his father about the death of his cousin's wife: suicide by fatal legume.

David Pepin, a video game designer, and his wife Alice, a teacher of emotionally disturbed children, live in New York City. Chronically depressed after three miscarriages and a diagnosis of infertility, Alice has become morbidly obese, which David actually doesn't mind - what makes him miserable are Alice's repeated attempts to lose weight, which disrupts the equilibrium of their marriage.

After repeated attempts to slim down through weird diets and quack devices, Alice finally starts to shed the weight, and David fears she's shedding the marriage along with her girth. Alice finally leaves, refusing to tell David where she's going, and he promptly starts sleeping with a coworker, only to have her reappear nine months later, continuing to dwindle in size. David ends his affair, but a menacing private investigator he hired to find Alice continues to bedevil him.

Finally, either David murders his severely allergic wife by forcing her to eat peanuts, or she kills herself by eating them voluntarily - that's what the novel's two detectives are trying to figure out, while pursuing the elusive PI.

Both detectives have their own problems. One, the aforementioned Dr. Sheppard, is dragging around the own question of his guilt or innocence, and the other, Detective Ward Hastroll, is dealing with a wife who has refused to leave the bed for five months and won't tell him why. All three men are determined to plumb the depths of the others' culpability in the failure of their marriages, while simultaneously being baffled by the intricacies of their own relationships.

Mr. Peanut has compelling, gut-wrenching scenes, in particular one of Alice's late-term miscarriages and the murder of Dr. Sheppard's wife, Marilyn. Mr. Peanut is also rich in repeated motifs - M.C. Escher's artwork crops up repeatedly, as do references to films and characters by Alfred Hitchcock. The work itself is very Hitchcockian, ambiguous about guilt or innocence, presenting events from slightly altered perspectives, and permeated with a sense of voyeurism.

Mr. Peanut is a disorienting work, as the reader is never quite sure where they are - in the book's narrative, in the imagining of the various characters, or in Pepin's uncompleted novel, which is also about the dissolution of his relationship with Alice and her death?

Although Ross fleshes out his characters rather well, particularly the murdered Marilyn, Alice remains something of an enigma, and his one attempt at capturing her voice, overhead in an Overeater's Anonymous meeting, is jarringly Palahniukesque and false. The introduction of the threatening PI, Mobius, feels unnecessary - why bring in a potential murderer when you have so many other ones handy? Mobius feels more like a plot device than a character. But the book, imbued with a dark humor that is wildly funny at times, is intricate enough that you'll want to reread it, and maybe take some notes, as soon as you're done.

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