Tuesday, July 09, 2002

Mason writer's second novel a cross-country love quest

By David Caudill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Joyce is a Vermonter who drinks too much. She's lost her job, her husband and her teenage son, who has run off with his bizarre, beautiful girlfriend.

        Joyce realizes her drinking might have driven her son away and might have led him to his own addictions.

    Ordinary Monsters
By Karen Novak
    Bloomsbury; $24.95; 275 pages
        In her sober moments, Joyce feels the agony of her life and knows she must get her son back. She tries to hire a private detective, but the detective, Leslie Stone, discovers something that makes her think Joyce's son will never be found. She says Joyce can only hope he decides to return on his own.

        Readers of Karen Novak's first novel, Five Mile House, will recognize private detective Leslie Stone's name. But this Mason writer's second novel, Ordinary Monsters,is not a detective story. Leslie Stone says she can't help Joyce.

        Joyce must help herself. If her son is to be found, she has to do it. She sobers up, gasses up the car and hits the road. We think we're in store for a cross-country search, but this is not a road book, either.

        Somewhere in western Pennsylvania, Joyce helps a young man whose car has broken down. He's an L.A. magic school flunkie who was returning to his home in the East. As she's giving him a lift to the nearest town, he notices the photo on her car visor — a picture of her son and his girlfriend, Maddie. He tells Joyce he saw them a few days before in the Hoodoo Bar & Grill in Lagrimas, a little town east of L.A..

        It's the tip Joyce needs. She fast-forwards her Saturn across the country and through the Mojave dust toward the fictional Lagrimas. As she drives, beer bottles rattle beneath the seats and in her conscience, reminders of the habit that will destroy her if she doesn't stay focused.

        She finds the Hoodoo, or maybe it finds her. It's a place of imagination and the setting for much of the rest of the book. The Hoodoo's regulars are straight out of the likable losers yearbook. The whole town is populated by people who have gone there because they fit nowhere else. They refer to the place as “Grim Ass.”

        But three of the people Joyce encounters are not your average barflies. One is the Hoodoo's waitress, TJ, who makes extra money to further her legal education by becoming extremely close to some customers. And yes, she has a heart of gold.

        Another, Duncan Dupree, is a loner with a tough-guy past. He seems to have a lot of enemies but knows how to keep them at bay.

        The third is Danny, a 16-year-old whom Joyce first heard about and met, hoping he would be her son. Danny is not her son but becomes a kind of representation of him, a chance for Joyce to be a good parent to someone.

        Of course, like the other town residents, Danny is unusual. He speaks Shakespeare; that is, he says nothing that is not part of The Tempest. It's surprising how many of life's encounters can be handled quite nicely with Shakespeare's lines.

        Joyce gets a second chance at her life in Lagrimas: Duncan offers her a shot at love with a man who might understand her; TJ offers her friendship and trust; Danny is the son she can love and protect this time. Or can she?

        The same demons, the ordinary monsters and some extraordinary ones, inhabit Grim Ass.

        Ms. Novak has created a book unlike her debut novel. It's not genre fiction, not a mystery, not a ghost story. It's surreal fiction, with a base of darkness, but humor as its dominant seasoning. It could be read as a complex, wildly impractical joke with multiple punch lines.

        When you think you might know where it's going, it takes you to unexpected places, literary places and places of the imagination.

        It's more ambitious than Five Mile House and extends Ms. Novak's search for how to find love and give love amid life's pain.

       Karen Novak signs and discusses Ordinary Monsters 7 p.m. today, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Edwards and Madison roads, Norwood, 396-8960.


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