January 2012

Stuff I’ve Been Reading

A monthly column

by Nick Hornby

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • The Family Fang—Kevin Wilson
  • Letters to Monica—Philip Larkin
  • Bury Me Deep—Megan Abbott
  • Wild Abandon—Joe Dunthorne
  • Brother of the More Famous Jack—Barbara Trapido
  • Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN—James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales

BOOKS READ:

  • The Family Fang—Kevin Wilson
  • Wild Abandon—Joe Dunthorne
  • The End of Everything—Megan Abbott
  • Bury Me Deep—Megan Abbott
  • Your Voice in My Head—Emma Forrest

One of the pleasures of visiting my half brother, who lives in a lovely house in Sussex, not far from the south coast, is that he knows someone who entertains the children by firing whole lemons from a homemade bazooka. He doesn’t fire the lemons at anything, but that’s the point: a piece of waxy yellow fruit shooting up hundreds of feet through a blue sky is one of the best spectacles Mother Nature can offer. (And let’s face it, even then she needed the help of a man-made explosive device.) In Kevin Wilson’s first novel, The Family Fang, Buster Fang becomes badly injured when, during the course of a magazine assignment, he gets his facial features temporarily rearranged by a potato fired from a very similar device. I am pretty sure I would have loved The Family Fang anyway, but sometimes you need this kind of unexpected, almost suspiciously friendly connection to a novel. Buster is blasted by the potato on page 32 of my hardback copy, just at the point where, if you are the kind of person who gives up on books, you might be asking yourself whether you’re going to stick with it. And then, suddenly, like a sign from God, you’re thinking, Hey! That’s Sam’s lemon gun! Except they’re using potatoes! Earlier in my writing career, I contributed reviews regularly to some of the more respectable broadsheet newspapers; now you can see why I gave up. I could never figure out a way of shoehorning the lemon-gun stories into my otherwise careful, sober appraisals, and yet sometimes you need them.

I came across The Family Fang as a result of good old-fashioned browsing, an activity that the internet, the decline of bookshops, and a ludicrously optimistic book-buying policy (see every previous column in these pages) has rendered almost obsolete. I picked it up because of the great Ann Patchett’s generous and enthusiastic blurb—“The best single-word description would be genius”—and it stayed picked up because, on further investigation, it appeared to be a novel at least partly about art and why we make it, and I love books on that subject. I walked it over to the tills because I had recently come to the conclusion that I needed to read books by younger writers, not out of a sense of professional duty but because I was feeling the lack of youth in my fiction diet. Over the last couple of months I’ve read James Hynes’s Next and Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, both novels about older men looking back on their lives, and the veteran biographer Claire Tomalin’s magisterial life of Dickens, and suddenly I wanted to know what, if anything, the young were thinking. This month, everyone I read was between the ages of thirty and forty, which is about as young as I can go without wanting to hang myself.

The Family Fang is pretty much the kind of novel you might dream of finding during an aimless twenty minutes in a bookstore: it’s ambitious, it’s funny, it takes its characters seriously, and it has soul—here defined as that beautiful ache fiction can bring on when it wants the best for us all while simultaneously accepting that most of the time, even good enough isn’t possible. Buster and Annie Fang are the adult children of Camille and Caleb Fang, performance artists whose art involved and frequently embarrassed their children while they were growing up. A series of calamities (potato bazooka for Buster, accidental nudity and unwise sex for Annie) results in the children returning home to Tennessee, where their parents are still working, still hoping to convince their kids that family performance-art is their one true calling.

You can see how this setup might have gone very wrong in lesser hands. It might have been so unbearably quirky that you got toothache, or too pleased with itself, or all high-concept and no low detail, but Kevin Wilson steps around every pothole with utter confidence. He has fun with the premise—the Fangs’ stunts are inventive and plausible—but in the end this is a novel about parents and children, so everything serves a more sober purpose, although the sobriety never slows the book down. The Family Fang has been and will be compared to the work of Wes Anderson, but Anderson has never struck me as someone who gets engrossed in the psychology of his characters, and in any case, despite the beatnik milieu, Wilson tells his story pretty straight. I was reminded more ofAnne Tyler’s painstaking verisimilitude, and the love she lavishes on her people, and the way their apparently particular missteps and misunderstandings and regrets can serve, somehow, as shorthand for the many and various ways we all mess up.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Nick Hornby lives in North London.


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