Monday, April 27, 2015


Adam Rapp's Know Your Beholder is one cuckoo nutty bananas novel, but I loved just about every crazypants minute of it. One can forgive protagonist Francis Falbo for feeling a few bubbles shy of plumb. His mother died. His father remarried and moved to Florida with his new wife. His band broke up, his friends/bandmates moved away, and his beloved wife, Sheila Ann, left him for another (seemingly perfect) man. All of which has left Francis alone in his childhood home in Pollard, Illinois to deal with his demons. And how he deals (or doesn't deal, as the case may be) makes for a bizarre, wonderfully-written run-on of a story.

Francis has withdrawn, his life in a self-confessed state of default. He becomes agoraphobic, refusing to leave the house for months, spending extended periods in layers of thermals and a bathrobe without showering, his beard growing into crazy territory. Yet at the same time he's retreating from the world into his head and his home, institutions of his own making, Francis brings a bit of the world to him by remodeling the house into apartments.

Francis lives in the attic space and rents out the newly-formed apartments to a group of tenants so eccentric it's almost as if Rapp wanted to see how far out he could get. They include Todd and Mary Bunch, retired circus trapeze artists who fall under suspicion when their three-year-old daughter disappears from a local Target; Sheila Ann's stoner brother Bradley, who has a steady stream of odd visitors; Harriet Gumm, a twenty-year-old art student working on a history of the African American experience utilizing naked male models; Baylor Phebe, a cheerful widower come to town to play the lead in Death of a Salesman at the local theater; and Bob Blubaugh, who seems to be a perfect renaissance man (and who Francis believes is "ninjafied").

Francis doesn't do much but write in his journal, grow a gamey beard, semi-spy-to-full-on-trespass on his neighbors, speculate on the disappearance of the Bunch baby, and ruminate on his life and all he's lost. But Rapp writes about Francis doing nothing in a way that makes it feel like a whirlwind of activity. For lack of a better way to put it, he writes about the mundane beautifully. The book is a first-person narrative reflecting Francis's journal, so this is perhaps evidence of the mayhem going on in his mind. It's loony and it's fabulous.

At times the prose is brief and to the point, at times paragraphs go on for more than a page or two as rambling thoughts spill from Francis's mind into his journal. As a self-professed lover of lean prose, it surprised me a bit that these longer portions were some of my favorites, and I found myself grinning like an idiot and rooting for them to just keep on going and getting crazier. It has nothing to do with the author's ability to be succinct. Regardless of length, Rapp's writing is astoundingly good. I book-darted the hell out of these pages.

As an example of the contrast, here are a couple of brief thoughts/descriptions:

  • The copper beech lit up monstrously. Like a figure that could chase you down and ruin your life.
  • Adult men with high voices always surprise you, though. They're either incredibly well-endowed or know karate.
  • The first thing to betray a front man's false poise is his voice.

Compare to this hilarious description of his father's new bride. I would call it a run-on, but this is perhaps middle-of-the-road to shorter in length than many passages. When Rapp really gets going, you can't even see the horizon:

  • Sissy, a waggly-breasted, six-foot Lutheran widow, boasts burled hands, the shoulders of a veteran lumberjack, and a face somehow reminiscent of a young Garrison Keillor. I'm convinced that if I were to challenge her in any number of one-on-one combat exercises, she would put me on my ass six ways to Sunday. Her bidirectional, east-west breasts jiggle around so much underneath her many lilac-colored church sweaters that you have to wonder about not only their shape, volume, and bra strategy, but also their quantity. Does she possess three breasts? Five? Some large, some small, some upside-down or sideways? She's forty-nine but looks sixty-five, and I would swear one arm is longer than the other. I keep looking for the thing that attracted my above-average-handsome, sixty-two-year-old, semi-wealthy, charming-in-a-golden-retriever-sort-of-way father, but I'm at a loss.
Sissy appears in the book for all of this paragraph and a few stray lines, so you can imagine what Rapp does with his main and supporting characters.

I had a bit of a hard time with the story, or should I say the "resolution," such as it was. It felt a bit pat and cliched to me. This normally might have been a let-down, but I was so all-in on the language it almost didn't matter. I laughed and cringed happily through 7/8ths of the book. Picturing Francis as Zach Galifianakis didn't hurt either. He jumped into my head immediately (maybe even when I saw the cover) and I swear if they make this into a movie and don't cast him they've lost their marbles.

STREET SENSE:  I highly recommend Know Your Beholder to those of you who love reading/writing simply for the sake of beautiful language, even if much of it sounds like it's coming from the mind of an intelligent kook. It's not nonsensical in the least, you'll understand all of it, some of the thoughts are just far out. I adored the language and it made me laugh out loud repeatedly, but ultimately I was a tad disappointed in the ending.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  This was such a hard choice. I ended up selecting this one as it tells you a bit more about Francis himself, or at least the state he's in during most of the book:

Before I got under the water, I finally looked in the mirror, focusing exclusively on my beard, which had begun to look like it was made of granite. I tried to avoid my eyes. Somehow I knew they would be ringed with shameful, baggy, bourbon-colored circles. Of course I failed. When you start to become your own science experiment, you can't help looking. They weren't as bad as I thought. I looked mostly sad. Sad in the same way that weather can be sad. I was the human equivalent of a cold, rainy day. I was a brown puddle in the middle of a dead-end street, with maybe a Popsicle stick or two floating in my dank, dog-slobbered water.

COVER NERD SAYS:  The fact that I read this book was down to the cover, so I'd say it's a pretty great one from my perspective. I had no idea what this book was about and had never even heard of it before the cover caught my eye. (It's only a Pulitzer prize nominee, so yeah, my finger's right on the pulse, isn't it?) Anyway, something about the colors and image spoke to me and I was curious. In hindsight, it also makes a pretty good metaphor for Francis, being stuck in his house and stuck in his head. There are all kinds of metaphors there for the making.


Marisa @The Daily Dosage said...

Sounds like I need to get on the list for this one at the library. I love your review format btw. I'm in a bit of a review slump and need to rethink how I would like to approach my reviews.

Shannon @ River City Reading said...

I picked this up and set it down because it just wasn't the right time (but I knew the writing was great from the get go!). I'm a reader who reads for writing, so this has me all over it...I'll need to get back to it at some point.

Pop Culture Nerd said...

This is not what I'd normally pick up at all, even with that cool, intriguing cover, but man, your excerpts made me laugh. I had to be quiet because I read this in bed while my husband was still sleeping. That whole passage about Sissy--I had a hand over my mouth and was shaking from silent laughter.

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

I will get another copy from the library and read/email you passages every day for the three-week checkout, then we can both laugh. I was seriously giggling to myself. Crazy narrative voice, I loved it.

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

After I wrote my review I looked at some others and one reviewer summed it up perfectly - Rapp is incapable of writing a bad sentence. I'd be curious to hear what you think of the ending, so if you end up going back to it, let me know.

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

Thanks, Marisa, I appreciate that. It's funny, because I think we all question how we do it and feel stale and slumpy sometimes. Maybe that helps keep things fresh, but I also wish we weren't so hard on ourselves. Having a great community of bloggers helps. And I can tell you I enjoy your reviews, and you've certainly put books on my radar.

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

Did you have this on your Monday What Are You Reading post one week? I'm trying to remember where the cover first struck me and I'm thinking that might have been where it was. So thank you, because I would have missed it.

Julianne - Outlandish Lit said...

Oh my god, this sounds SO GOOD AND RIGHT UP MY ALLEY. I actually got the copy of this from Shannon after she put it down haha. I didn't know anything about it really, but now I'm super pumped. Also, the description of the main character sounds like my roommate. Except my roommate has gone through no traumas.

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

I can't believe I didn't come straight to you with this pack of lunacy. I think it's totally in your wheelhouse. I have no words for your roommate situation. Egads.

Julianne - Outlandish Lit said...

I'll never forgive you. This is worse than soilgate.
And I have no words either.

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

Wait a minute. Worse than Soilgate because I failed to mention to you or because you started the book and it's worse than Soilgate? I just can't win with you! :)

Julianne - Outlandish Lit said...

Because you failed to mention it to me, duh. But, to be fair, I've had this post open in a tab since it came out and I just got around to reading and commenting on it. I don't have a great system.

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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