January 2004

Randy Schaub

fiction

The Gift by David Flusfeder

There is a literary trick -- I don’t know what it’s called, exactly -- that involves thrusting one’s protagonist into a series of situations so absurd, so potentially embarrassing, so easily avoided if only our hero would come to his senses, that the reader finds himself cringing, uncomfortable, peeking at the page with one eye, shouting impotently at the page: “No! You idiot!” Of course, in the end, we read on, because we are sick little voyeurs. When another human being is humiliated, we are entertained. In the case of David Flusfeder’s The Gift, we are entertained masterfully and repeatedly.

Like the titular character of the great English comedy Lucky Jim, the hero of The Gift, Phillip, is a lone Thinking Man in a world of shallow, moneyed snobs. Unlike Lucky Jim, Phillip calls these people friends. Phillip and his wife, themselves possessed of modest means, find themselves the targets of increasing generosity from Barry and Sean, a very wealthy (Barry is a famous producer) couple who regard lavish gifts as a key expression of love. Phillip feels diminished and indebted as a result of Barry’s giving, and needs to answer each present with one of his own, trying to upstage Barry and Sean’s thoughtfulness with ever more elaborate gestures of "appreciation." A bizarre war evolves between the two camps, each gift answered with one of escalating value, the protagonist ever more oppressed by his own inability to outshop his friends, until poor Phillip finally snaps…

The Gift is a book of ridiculous situations, peopled by those beloved comic foils, People Who Are Not Like You And Me. Flusfeder portrays every comically disastrous plan, every misguided decision, with great flair -- the characters, while varying in depth, are at least consistent in their actions. And, really, it is the events that drive the comedy, not the people. Phillip’s wife Alice, for example, is only barely there. They have children -- a pair of little creatures who want things, and do little else. Phillip provides the only glimmers of depth in the novel, and we are allowed, in small doses, to see the kind of person who fixates so heavily on giving, receiving, and reciprocating.

Flusfeder is a good writer, and the story moves quickly, even when events begin to seem repetitive. More attention is paid to dialogue and plot than good, pictorial description, and until the reader gets more than halfway through the book, he may find himself forgetting which characters belong with which names and locales. Still, it’s a great read, a good idea, and, I’ll bet, the beginnings of a successful motion picture. It has a wide potential audience, and, although I don’t mean to be cutesy regarding the book’s title, it would make a risk-free gift for almost anyone who reads for fun.

The Gift by David Flusfeder
Fourth Estate
ISBN: 0007157738
312 Pages