Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mr. Peanut: The Miasma of Marriage and Death by Nut Allergy

Delightfully Dark: Mr. Peanut

"When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn't kill her himself. He dreamed of convenient acts of God." Those are the opening lines that hooked me on Mr. Peanut. Its author, Adam Ross, worked for nearly a decade on this debut novel. The New York Times called him a "sorcerer with words."

The death by anaphylactic shock of David Pepin's nut-allergic wife, Alice, may or may not have been murder. The story is based on a real-life incident in Ross's family, and he assembles a series of tableaus involving Pepin and two detectives investigating Alice's death. One of the men is convicted 1950's-era wife-killer Sam Sheppard, here dropped into another role. The author makes us squirm by pulling back the curtain on each of their troubled marriages in subtly relateable ways almost too dirt-under-your-fingernails disturbing to acknowledge.

Ross references the artwork of M.C. Escher in this set of braided stories that are at times as illusory as the art. (On Twitter, he goes by the handle @escherx.) As the character David Pepin writes a novel within a novel, the story becomes a Möbius strip, looping back on itself, and Detective Sheppard questions its namesake hit man about Alice's death while Mobius questions him right back about Sheppard's own infamous murder case.

The real strength is Ross's writing. My favorite passage: "Once, while David was waiting to board an airplane, he saw a mother try to stop her inconsolable daughter from crying. But what made it unique was how loud the girl was. She wailed. She howled. She screamed, no shit, at the top of her lungs, for so long that it made the expression at once literal and surreal too, as if the squalling were a gnome standing on a ladder inside her neck, the topmost rung by her tonsils, and pulling down on the cord of uvula to hold her mouth open, using the girl's whole head as a kind of loudspeaker."

My own husband was as patient as a priest as I insisted on enthusiastically quoting several paragraphs – including the one above – aloud to him in bed, interrupting his own reading. I've loaned Mr. Peanut to two friends are they've both returned reviews of "excellent." This hardcover has been toted from place to place, passed around, and even dropped in a toilet, but it's a keeper, and I'm nearly turning blue with anticipation of Adam Ross's next book.