Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross
When I was growing up outside of Cleveland, the Sam Sheppard murder trials galvanized not just our sleepy news cycle, but all of the Upper Midwest and the rest of the country. Sheppard, scion of a family of osteopaths, was accused of killing his trophy wife Marilyn in their elegant Bay Village mansion, and after an initial conviction resulting in a ten-year prison term, was retried with F. Lee Bailey at the defense and eventually acquitted. Sheppard’s case was the basis of the '60s hit television series The Fugitive, and sympathies for the parties broke down along class lines with a special vengeance. In working-class Northern Ohio, almost everyone thought this admittedly philandering doctor was guilty. I remember how much my father, a tire salesman, detested Sheppard, a contempt that was shared throughout the factory towns and farm villages by the male heads of most families. Not only were most fathers jealous of a doctor’s income, but in those days the small-town physician had an involuntary one up on his fellow, mere mortal males: he got to see everyone’s wife naked. In fact, in the words of a doctor-writer friend of mine, he saw everyone’s wife “more than naked.” And the arrogance of the defendant and his carpetbagging, swaggering defense lawyer didn’t help any.
The Great American Sam Sheppard novel has finally been written by Adam Ross, a relatively new writer from Nashville. But in his Mr. Peanut, what could have been a straightforward, serious literary thriller (and a lot more in terms of traditional writing) has much else going on with it, specifically a set of postmodern devices that surround it like a rickety Rube Goldberg mousetrap. Mr. Peanut actually starts with the alleged spousal murder by one David Pepin, a computer game designer and would-be novelist, accused of force-feeding or sneaking into a side dish a lethal peanut, to which he knows his wife reacts with hives, seizures, and eventual closing of the throat. Commencing with David’s endless fantasies about killing his pathetic, obese, bed-ridden spouse, we are suddenly confronted with her corpse and the truly open question of whether the cause in fact was her husband’s malice aforethought, his negligence, a third party’s foul play, the wife’s disposition to suicide, or her simply reaching into the wrong snack tin.
When the police show up to investigate, the novel takes its strange, superstructural turn -- the investigating detectives have marital difficulties that mirror Pepin’s, and the first gumshoe is named Ward Hastroll. His wife is an almost cartoonishly exaggerated version of Pepin’s, someone so depressive and overweight that she has not been out of bed for five months. Hastroll, too, has vivid fantasies of murder, or of his (also Pepin’s constant daydream) better half’s death by natural causes such as lightning or drowning or the glutton’s sometimes inevitable Selbstmord: choking on the last allergic handful of snacks.
It is the other detective whose name is Sam Sheppard. His wife has more complexities than mood disorders and surplus poundage, specifically yearnings -- again like Alice Pepin’s -- of a creative, vagabonding life engendering the couple’s “true” potential for a rich and fulfilling existence, much like the deluded spouse of the protagonist in Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road (its influence on Ross here is palpable and undisguised). Sheppard’s Marilyn does inflate and deflate with the ferocity of the frantic dieter, but she also dreams of the adulterer’s instant, new-made identity; the traveler’s plangently constant race against boredom; and the wealthy matron’s sense of material privilege being both a kind of immunity from sadness while at the same time an ever-tightening prison. The Sheppard narrative at this point takes over and the book, after its first roller-coaster drops and twists, begins to even out and settle into itself as a plausible, entertaining story. The detectives focus on a suspect named Mobius, the counterpart to the “one-armed man” that the TV fugitive and real-life Sheppard fingered as the true killer, and whose hair and flesh samples were keys to Bailey’s winning an acquittal long before the days of O.J.-era, exonerating DNA.
Both within the outer, framing stories and the more conventional Sheppard tale, the true brilliance of Ross’s writing is its exploration of the toxic paradoxes of marriage. As Stephen King said of this book, it may well be the greatest exploration of domestic strife since Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?. The book never flinches in its focus on matrimony’s funhouse mirrors of dissatisfaction, ennui, contentedness, and occasional bliss. Like Albee and Yates, Ross has a staggering gift (especially in such a young writer) for portraying marriage as the most universal and yet mysterious, sometimes unfathomable of relationships. Attention will be paid (to paraphrase another eternal husband, Willy Loman) to this author’s brilliance at tracking a husband and wife’s simultaneous search for fulfillment in the other while holding that same person responsible for every unhappiness and disappointment.
But even more than in Yates, and somewhat less but more fascinatingly than in Albee, Ross’s Sheppard and Marilyn (and David and Alice and Ward and Hannah) demonstrate a self-knowledge, an awareness of their groping struggles with one another and an appreciation of their inherence in the institution they occupy. Here is Marilyn Sheppard driving the Bay Shore highway along Lake Erie, wondering exactly who she observes is as curious as Karenina, or herself:
She could go anywhere now because she was operating under (Sam’s) presumptions. She drove down Lake Road, studying the drivers in the oncoming lane. Where were these men and women off to? Did their husbands or wives know? Were they where they were supposed to be or was everyone sneaking around? She had, if anything, greater latitude than Sam, and if she chose she could afford even more convenient forms of deception because in the past he’d predicated his deceptions on her absences...
The six-person, three-pair characters’ inner worlds of longing, wondering, and fantasizing are rendered without a false moment, without so much as a single misplaced recognition. The jagged graph of marriage’s modulations, peaks of ecstasy and stagnant, bewildering troughs of oblivion, all take place in tremendously realistic interior concentrations like Marilyn’s drive here to the Sheppard clinic. For all its attempts to foster stability, marriage is life and fate’s persistently unpredictable microcosm: “[N]o guaranteed gifts for the good or punishments for the bad, no fairness in what the Lord giveth and taketh away, except for the undeniable fact of corporeality, and thus one’s own death.” We run from loneliness only to see that companionship entails the same dice throw, the same black, unreadable map.
Relationship insights notwithstanding, one ends up wishing Ross had tagged less filigree onto the fine, central story where most of these insights come to the doctor and his frustrated Scheherazade. The Sheppard material is so solid and well-realized, its characters so inherently believable, that the Pepin/Hastroll/Narrator’s wrap-arounds seem unworkable and contrived. One wants to carve away the fact that Pepin’s secret book also has the same opening as Ross’s, the fact that competing tales and alternate endings -- drawing droll attention to themselves -- fly off the smooth running central narrative engine like bad timing belts. Can’t anyone tell a straight-ahead story anymore? Ross does, but wraps his succulent Cleveland kielbasa in unnecessary bacon strips. Writers of Ross’s traditionalist talents might want to stay away from clever devices. They often come across as nothing more than that, and send the reader back to what sustains.
Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross