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Friday, March 6, 2015

Review: 'The First Bad Man'

The First Bad Man
By Miranda July
Literary fiction
January 2015
Scribner
ISBN: 978-1439172568

Cheryl Glickman may not know any of Barbara Pym's excellent women, but this protagonist of Miranda July's first novel is one of them. The middle-aged, never-married Cheryl lives on her own in a neatly appointed house that is no home, and works for a self-defense nonprofit organization that is as New Age and California as anything that is New Age and in California can be.

This is a woman who thinks she knows herself, but she's as much a stranger to her as everyone else in the world. (Well, all perhaps one, but more of that later.) After all, she's the kind of woman who "strolled through the parking garage and into the elevator, pressing twelve with a casual, fun-loving finger. The kind of finger that was up for anything."

In a manner both droll and deft, July lays out Cheryl's sterile life and work. The part where the nonprofit's founders talked her into staying home most of the time, and out of their hair, is magnificent. Cheryl is clueless that her employers don't want her around but keep paying her anyway:

Then he told me my managerial style was more effective from a distance, so my job was now work-from-home though I was welcome to come in one day for a week and for board meetings.

Perhaps that's because "Once Carl called me ginjo, which I thought meant 'sister' until he told me it's Japanese for a man, usually an elderly man who lives in isolation while he keeps the fire burning for the whole village". Or something like that.

Besides developing a housework system that involves doing no housework, Cheryl has two obsessions. One is a board member of the nonprofit who she thinks has been her great love in past lives. In this life, Phillip is a self-absorbed old man who occasionally texts or talks to her about his new obsession -- a much, much younger woman.

Her other obsession is a baby she met when she was a child. Cheryl thinks she had a conversation with this child, Kubelko Bondy, and that, appropriately enough for his last name, they bonded:

I watched him crying and waited for someone to come but no one came so I heaved him onto my small lap and rocked his chubby body. He calmed almost immediately. I kept my arms around him and he looked at me and I looked at him and he looked at me and I knew that he loved me more than his mother and father and that in some very real and permanent way he belonged to me. ...

Seconds later he sailed out into the night, my own dear boy. Never to be seen again.

Except I did see him again -- again and again. Sometimes he's a newborn, sometimes he's already toddling along. As I pulled out of my parking spot I got a better look at the baby in the car next to mine. Just some kid.

When not doing whatever it is she does for the nonprofit, listening to Phillip dither over his young woman or searching for her dear boy, she deals with her globus. She has trouble swallowing and is nearly as obsessed with spitting discreetly as she is with her other obsessions.

Then her employers dump their unemployed daughter, Clee, on her lap. Everyone -- really, everyone -- who puts this young woman up is delighted to see her leave. Clee, of course, upsets Cheryl's world.

The novel then takes a wild turn. Then it gets weird. Then something big happens. And then something even bigger happens. There were times I wasn't sure I could keep on reading about Cheryl's interior life and how it was affecting what was going on with her unwelcome houseguest, let alone how life with her unexpected houseguest was affecting her interior life. Cheryl is unreliable not because she sets out to deceive the reader, but because she is so clueless about herself and her world. But she's certainly far more open to experiencing life as it comes to her than the closed-up woman who thinks she has a finger that is up for anything.

And then there is one of the sweetest, best realized endings to a novel in some time. It was unexpected, satisfying and exactly right.

It's not often an author can turn the course of a novel and have it work. For a debut novelist to do this more than once and still have it all work is unexpected. Reading The First Bad Man is like watching a high-wire artist perform magic tricks while jumping through hoops of fire. And coming out at the other end with everything in place.

July has published short stories and is an accomplished actress and filmmaker. Even with all the evidence of a creative free spirit who knows narrative and character, and how well they can work together, this novel is still a remarkable work to behold.

©2015 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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