Thursday, June 30, 2011

Heartlessly punked

It was very hard to resist picking up a novel titled "Heart, You Bully, You Punk." Taken from Marie Ponsot's poem "One is One," that pretty much sums up how about I feel about my stupid emotions, who are constantly doing stupid, weird things, often completely unrelated to anything that is actually happening at any given moment. It's sort of like someone replaced my emotional gyroscope with that of a three-year-old who is coming down off a sugar binge.

This insular little novel from Leah Hagar Cohen is a quick read, albeit a pleasing one, with deftly drawn characters, including a group of adolescents, who Cohen nails perfectly in their inchoate, self-centered states of flux.

Iphegenia Julia Esker is an introverted, distant math teacher saddled with a completely ridiculous name. Going by the much more suitable "I.J. Esker," or just Esker, please, she teaches at a small, private, progressive school - the type of school where the students don't get actual grades, but tend to be more along the idiosyncratic/artsy line than the future-hedge-fund-manager line.

One of Esker's favorite students, Ann, falls from the bleachers one day and fractures both her heels, leaving her wheelchair bound. Esker volunteers to tutor Ann so she won't fall behind in math, although Esker is automatically uncomfortable about blurring the boundaries between school and home. Ann is neither troubled nor rebellious, and her uncertainty over how she fell troubles Esker and Ann's father, Wally.

Esker and Wally actually have a bit in common - Wally's still married, although his wife has left him to become an actress. Esker is still nursing wounds from a relationship that ended nine years ago, but Esker and Wally slowly start reaching towards each other, using their mutual concern about Ann as a bridge.

Things get complicated rather quickly in this slim novel. Wally's ex-wife Alice returns (although not to return to him - she's just taking a bit of vacation) and the thoroughly dislikeable headmistress of the Prospect School gets wind of Esker and Wally's barely-a-relationship-yet and threatens to fire her.

This novel is very tightly circumnavigated, from the halls of Prospect School to Esker's house, Wally's apartment, and Wally's restaurant, Game (that serves game - get it?) and as a result, feels rather claustrophobic, although it does an excellent job of mimicking the claustrophobia of adolescence. Cohen's Ann is wonderfully drawn, as are her friends, who are alternately sullen, mocking, and unexpectedly sweet. The scenes in which Ann and her friends sit around and banter never feel forced or false.

Ultimately, Heart left me feeling like it was the start of a larger story, and the ending is abrupt and ambiguous. It made me feel a little grasping, wanting to spend some more time with Ann, Esker, and Wally, who are as adrift at the novel's end as in its opening.

Heart, You Bully, You Punk does an excellent job of capturing those moments when the rind of a sealed-up heart starts cracking and the pain and awkwardness that results. Cohen neatly sketches characters convinced that they'll be punished for wanting, and it's sad to watch their expectations get fulfilled as their carefully managed lives pop apart while they fumble towards each other with limited success.

Oh, and to read the poem in its entirety, go here.

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