March 2009

Laura van den Berg

fiction

Apologize, Apologize! by Elizabeth Kelly

In Elizabeth Kelly’s exuberant first novel, family eccentricities threaten to overrun the stage, but the rendering of the narrator’s emotional predicament elevates Apologize, Apologize! into a rich exploration of what it means to be an outsider in one’s own family.

“It must be hell to be so sane in a crazy world,” Bingo remarks to his brother, Collie. And indeed it is for Collie, who, to his family’s dismay, embraces the rigors of Andover, Brown, and Harvard Medical -- as opposed to, say, taking up the cause of the revolution, as his mother might have preferred. However, it is Collie’s “outsider” status that allows the Flanagan family to be seen in clear focus; their peculiarities are sometimes charming, sometimes grating, but Collie, both a member of the Flanagan tribe and something of an outcast, successfully anchors the novel and, by and large, prevents the quirkiness from feeling artificial and overdone.

The novel is simultaneously linear and meandering -- a structure that occasionally causes the book to resemble a slightly tedious compilation of wacky family anecdotes -- as readers follow Collie though adolescence and early adulthood. As his story progresses, certain differences between Collie and his relatives begin to define the novel’s shape and central preoccupations. It becomes evident that Bingo, who has inherited a full-on case of the Flanagan crazies, also possesses a certain moral ferocity. Bingo is the kind of person who doesn’t hesitate before stopping a group of men from sexually assaulting a woman on a beach, while Collie hangs back, unsure and afraid. That incident foreshadows a more tragic turn, one that creates an even starker contrast between the brothers’ different levels of moral fortitude, while also raising intriguing questions about the cultural fascination with off-kilter people: does their appeal lie in the way they can, without warning, vacillate from being intolerably selfish to surprisingly selfless? Or their ability to adhere fiercely to a way of being, however idiosyncratic, unlike the more “regular” people among us, who tend to be more malleable, more able to see the gray? In one moment, Collie’s father chastises him for cursing, as “bad language makes a man ordinary,” and Collie replies, “I am ordinary, Pop.” In another scene, Collie, during a trip to El Salvador, observes, “Courage exists -- even if it doesn’t exist in me.” These are both small moments, but ones, in full context, that brim with heartache, longing, and the seeds of Collie’s self-acceptance. Unlike his relatives, he’s not manic or daring or brilliant; for much of the novel, he’s simply trying to make it through the world unscathed.

At its best, Kelly’s prose is lovely: money falls “from the sky like ticker tape” and in a description of a family dispute, the brothers are likened to “turkeys in the rain, standing around helplessly, watching in wonder as they crashed through the railing of an upper-story balcony, Pop’s hands around Tom’s neck, Tom’s arms flailing, fury seeming to suspend them in midair.” At other points, however, the prose is awkward and brushes against the cliché, which contributes to another problem that plagues some areas of the novel: an absence of subtext and nuance on the sentence level causes certain scenes to lack substance. For example, when Bingo meets a woman of questionable character at a party and drags his brother along on a visit to her apartment, the reader gains little from the exchange: the woman fulfills the cliché of the exploitative, self-degrading type she’s set up to be, Bingo predictably shows rash judgment, a confrontation ensues. Aside from the stock characterization of the female character, there’s nothing inherently nothing wrong with the scenario; it’s the one-dimensional rendering that robs a potentially explosive moment of its richness. Along similar lines, the lack of dimension extends to several of the characters -- Collie’s mother is particularly one-note -- but, happily, the supporting characters that one might expect to border on caricature, namely Uncle Tom and Collie’s grandfather, The Falcon, are in fact the ones who offer the most surprising and complicated moments, just one of the many pleasing surprises that Kelly has in store for her readers.

Much like the family on which the novel centers, Apologize, Apologize! is an engaging, flawed, over-the-top, and charismatic novel. Elizabeth Kelly is certainly a writer of many talents and the world she renders in her debut is one worth visiting.

Apologize, Apologize! by Elizabeth Kelly
Twelve
ISBN: 978044640614
321 Pages