Lionel Shriver doesn't shy away from hot-button topics. Her breakout novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, from 2003, was about the mother of a teen who kills seven classmates in a school massacre (it was made into a film with Tilda Swinton). Her 2010 novel, So Much for That, which took aim at the American health care system, was nominated for the National Book Award. Big Brother is a comedic take on obesity; its warmhearted tone and nuanced portrayal of family dynamics make for a lively read. The narrator, Pandora, is a 40-something entrepreneur and former caterer. Her tidy home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where she lives with her husband, Fletcher, and his two children, is a happy one until her older brother, Edison, comes for an extended visit, trailing chaos and heartbreak in his outsized wake. This exclusive selection — which might as well have been titled "We Need to Talk About Your Brother" — introduces the main characters and the surprising turn that kicks the plot into gear. Big Brother will be published June 4.
ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some readers may find offensive.
"I'm picking your uncle up at the airport at five." The pecans on my pie smelled nicely toasted, and I pulled it from the oven. "Be sure and join us for dinner."
"Step-uncle," Tanner corrected, standing at the counter getting toast crumbs on the floor. "Right next door to total stranger in my book. Sorry. Got plans."
"Change them," I said. "I wasn't asking. You and Cody will be at dinner, period. Seven o'clock, if the plane's on time." I'd always felt shaky about exerting authority over my stepchildren, even shakier now that Tanner was seventeen, and when you don't feel confident of authority you do not have it. If he did as I said, he would obey out of pity. "When you have a houseguest," I added, laying on the parental shtick even thicker, "you may not have to be around for all the other meals, but you do on the first night."
"Is that so?"
I wasn't sure what I'd said was true. "I mean, I'd really appreciate your being here."
"So you are asking."
"That's different." He wiped butter from his mouth with his sleeve. "The guy was here once before, right?"
"A little over four years ago. Do you remember him?"
"Got a dim recollection of some blowhard. Kept yakking about bands nobody's ever heard of. Couldn't remember my fucking name."
The characterization stung. "Edison has a son somewhere, but his ex got full custody when the boy was a baby. So your uncle doesn't have much experience talking to kids — "
"Got the impression the problem was the way he talked to adults. He was boring the shit out of everybody."
"He's a very talented man who's led a very interesting life — much more interesting than mine. This is a rare opportunity to get to know him." I was speaking to a brick wall.
I hadn't quite cracked my stepson. Tanner had a blithe sense of entitlement, a certainty that he was destined for an undefined brand of greatness. Though already a month into his senior year of high school, he had yet to evince the slightest interest in the college education for which I was expressly saving the proceeds from my business. He wanted to write, but he didn't like to read. That summer the boy had announced that he'd decided to become a screenwriter as if doing Ridley Scott a personal favor. I'd wanted to shake the kid; had he any idea the poor odds of breaking into Hollywood even as a runner? Uncertain whether my impulse was kind or cruel, I'd held my tongue. I had pointed out that his grammar, punctuation, and spelling were atrocious, but Tanner imagined that word processing took care of all that silly prose-style folderol. Anyway, he'd said, for screenwriting you had to know how people really talked, for which a grasp of proper grammar was only an impediment. Okay, I'd thought begrudgingly, one point for Tanner. Throughout his adolescence, Fletcher and I had praised the boy's every poem, extolled the creativity of his half-page short stories. Parents are supposed to. But, to my horror, Tanner had believed us.
Tall, pale, and unmuscled, the boy had that undernourished look that girls so often fall for. His dark hair was painstakingly disheveled. The clashing layers of his clothing showed like peeled-back layers of old wallpaper: a checked sweatshirt over dangling striped shirttails, parted to reveal the elastic of plaid boxers rising above his slumped, unbelted jeans. Most of his friends stopped by in the same state of harlequin half-undress. Tanner carried himself with his hips canted forward, and he'd recently developed a disconcerting habit of touching himself while he talked — smoothing palms down his hips, or up his rib cage to his flat chest. He may have been chronically unimpressed, but that skepticism did not extend to himself, and I was amazed how readily his peers and teachers alike took his superficial assurance at face value.
I had to watch myself with Tanner. When I noted that "girls" would fall for his looks, I should have clarified: at his age, I'd have been one of those girls. It's not that I was tempted to be flirtatious with him; after all, I could still discern traces of the wary, closed-down ten-year-old I first inherited, who had to be coaxed into the open like a cat from under a bed. Nevertheless, I recognized my teenage stepson as just the sort of poised, hip, self-convinced young man with whom I was besotted in high school, where I'd huddled the halls praying above all to be left alone. (My classmates at Verdugo Hills were more than happy to oblige. Unlike Edison, I continued to go by "Halfdanarson," the surname with which I was born; I never let on that I was Travis Appaloosa's kid.) What I had to watch with Tanner, then, was resistance. It was tempting to parade before myself how as a grown woman I no longer fell for such a huckster, and I didn't want to indulge a too-ferocious, slightly vicious determination to see through him.
Viewed from the impunity of marriage, the penchant for unrequited passion that persisted through my early thirties had paid off. The likes of Tanner might not have known I was alive, but if you never spoke to the young man he would never reveal his disillusioning enthusiasm for the Bee Gees. Having nursed my loves in private, I had kept them inviolate, and was now spared looking back at a string of deranged entrancements with mortified incredulity. Marathon devotion had developed my emotional endurance, in contrast to Tanner's sprints with three or four girlfriends a year. I feared that my stepson wasn't learning to love women but to harbor contempt for the women who loved him.
"Glop that much jam on your toast," Fletcher grunted en route to a glass of water, "might as well be eating cake."
"Whole wheat!" said Tanner. "And he still won't give it a rest."
I'm sorry, but I don't eat daaaaaaaaairy! Our thirteen-year-old, Cody, had abandoned her piano practice to tug the pull-string doll propped on the dining area's middle shelf in case her father needed razzing. The doll was a first effort from four years before, and then a mere whimsy of a Christmas present. I'd sewn it from scratch on the heels of Fletcher's sudden health kick. The crafts project had doubled as therapy, embodying my struggle to keep a sense of humor about the fact that he would no longer come near my celebrated manicotti.
The stuffed ragamuffin wore a miniature version of Fletcher's standard black fleece, to which I'd glued his signature dandruff of sawdust. The doll had stovepipe black jeans, and other than a few teasing threads that spiked upright it was bald. The calf-high leather boots were constructed from the tongues of a fatigued pair of the life-size kind and soled with a retread strip that had fallen off a truck on Highway E36. I'd fashioned the wire-rim glasses out of aluminum paperclips and stitched a permanent scowl of disapproval into the forehead. One hand clutched a chisel (really a jeweler's screwdriver), the other a square of foam rubber that I'd had to explain was tofu. The fabric was starting to fray, but it had become a matter of professional importance that the mechanism inside was still going strong.
Shoes off the rail, Tanner! The Boomerang took me three months!
Since I'd involved my best friend Oliver Allbless in the joke from the beginning, it was his voice I'd recorded, and he'd proven adept at mincing his tones into the huffy and judgmental.
The electronic device buried in the torso included twenty edicts and exclamations. Little had I known that my mischievous little handicraft would soon become a monster.
The Fletcher doll was an instant hit with our kids, to whom the mocking recordings of their father's oppressive decrees helped to endear their stepmother. Taking the teasing good-naturedly, Fletcher had been touched by the scale of my effort, down to engaging Oliver to design an updated digital technology. (Not much better than rubber bands, the governor belts that drove the plastic records and turntables inside the old Chatty Cathys from the 1960s had been prone to snap — which is why few of these collector's items still functioned.) Dinner guests never wearied of pulling the string. The following year, Solstice had begged me to fashion a similar caricature of her new boyfriend, whose incessant repetition of faddish expressions like "Good to go!" and "That's my bad!" was driving her crazy. I'd been reluctant. I was still running Breadbasket. To work the same magic, the doll would have had to capture the boyfriend's build and dressing habits. Sensing my hesitation, Solstice offered to pay. I cited a price high enough to put my sister off, but she attached photographs and a list of pet phrases to an email the very same day.
Word of mouth no longer depends on gabbing over a picket fence, and with the aid of the Internet the customized pull-string doll business went viral. By that year's end, I had folded Breadbasket, and Baby Monotonous — though thanks to Fletcher's goading misnomer some locals believed Baby Moronic was my company's real name — had headquarters outside New Holland and a full-time workforce. The formula was irresistible: ridicule paired with affection. And while expensive to make, the dolls were far more expensive to buy. Besides, they'd not have been so popular if they were cheap. Costing about the combined price of a KitchenAid mixer and a top-of-the-line Dyson, a Baby Monotonous doll had become a status item, one by popular accord more rewarding than the average vacuum cleaner.
Aptly for the last father-son interchange, the third time Cody pulled the doll's string it declared with exalted sanctimony, I want DRY toast! I want DRY toast!
Both kids fell about laughing.
"I'd like to know why that thing never stops being funny," said Fletcher.
"Doesn't matter why," said Tanner, struggling to stand up straight. "They're always funny, they only get funnier, and that's why Pandora is rich."
"We're not rich," I said. Leaving aside my stepson's inflated assessment of our family's circumstances, rich was a word for other people, and generally for those one doesn't like. "We're only doing okay. And be sure not to say anything like that around your uncle." I corrected with an eye roll, "Step-uncle."
"Why not?" asked Tanner.
"It's impolite to talk about money. And your uncle Edison seems to have fallen on tough times. You don't want to rub it in."
Tanner looked at his stepmother sideways. "You don't want him to tap you."
"I didn't say that."
"Didn't have to." Tanner may have overestimated his literary gifts. But he was pretty smart.
Driving to Cedar Rapids Airport, I wondered how four years could have passed, the longest Edison and I had been apart. We had talked on the phone — though more than once his number had been suddenly out of service. He was constantly shifting digs, and often away on tours of Europe, South America, or Japan. It was up to me to track him down by calling other musicians like Slack. Exasperation that my older brother didn't keep up his end of our relationship was pointless. He always sounded happy to hear my voice, and that's all that mattered to me.
In the flurry of ordering bolts of fabric and bales of cotton stuffing, maybe it was little wonder I hadn't seen Edison. While establishing my headquarters, hiring actors for the recordings, taking on yet more staff to handle orders and ensure that the portly doll with the hard hat that demanded, "Where's my grub?" went to Lansing, Michigan, and not to Idaho, it had been tricky to remain attentive to Fletcher, Tanner, and Cody, or even to fit in phone calls to family farther afield. Although one call three years back had sounded fractionally off-key.
My product had just begun to capture the popular imagination, and I was still excited; why, my pull-string dolls were apparently all the rage among the upper crust in my brother's own city, having just been the subject of New York magazine's lead story, "Monotonous Manhattan" — with inset scripts of Donald Trump and Mayor Bloomberg dolls. But the tone with which Edison congratulated me on my appearance on that cover had disinclined me to dial again soon. All the words were in the right place, and the slight sneering or testiness might have been in my head; you could never quite trust the phone.
Since then, for me Monotonous had become too successful — meaning, all that remained was for the enterprise to become less so. Only a tipping point awaited, beyond which orders would decline. It wasn't a "problem" with which I expected others to sympathize, but recently I'd been suffering from an insidious lassitude that derived from having everything — more than, really — I had ever wanted. On the personal side, I had found Fletcher Feuerbach, to others tightly wound, but warmer and funnier behind closed doors than most suspected. (Stripped, he was a surprisingly handsome man, and he had once said the same of me: we were "stealth attractive.") I'd had none of my own children, but my adoptive ones were still speaking to me, which was more than could be said of the average teenager one had borne; I'd skipped the bawling-baby stage of childrearing, and gotten in on the best part. On the career side, I had never been ambitious, and suddenly I headed a thriving business of the most improbable sort: one with a sense of humor. I'd made just enough money that the prospect of making a little more left me cold.
Wise high-flyers kept this battle with the baffling flatness of success discreetly to themselves. Picture how bitterly hordes of the frustrated, disappointed, and dispossessed would greet any complaint about being too satisfied and too wealthy. Be that as it may, it really isn't a very nice sensation to not want anything. Thwarted hopes are no picnic, but desire itself is energizing. I had always been a hard worker, and this damnable repleteness was enervating. Without a doubt, there was only one solution to my growing torpidity, my Thanksgiving-dinner stupor writ large:
I needed a new project.
Brown with elegiac hints of yellow, cornfields drying for the October harvest slipped past my window. Overland electrical cables scalloped rhythmically by on creosoted poles, while globular water tanks on narrow stems glowed in autumnal sun like giant incandescent lightbulbs. The pastoral effect was blighted by big-box stores and strip malls — Kum & Go, Dollar General, Home Depot, and the recent explosion of Mexican restaurants, while as ever the Super 8 bannered in garish black and gold plastic: Go Hawkeyes, Support Our Team! Yet on pristine stretches the countryside expressed the timeless groundedness and solidity that had captivated me as a child on visits to my paternal grandparents: white clapboard, potato crops, the odd horse. Whatever foofaraw was roiling the rest of the country always seemed far away.
Since then, Iowa had changed. A wave of illegal immigrants had arrived to work in the pork-processing plants. State politics had grown a febrile right-wing fringe. Most family farms of the sort my grandparents tilled had long ago been sold or rented to agribusiness, so that numerous farmhouses, barns, and outbuildings along this route had collapsed. The crop already subsidized to the hilt, more than half of that corn would be converted to ethanol — netting still more lucrative federal subsidies and so slathering a whole second layer of corruption on a grain once a byword for wholesomeness and a hokey sense of humor. The subdued isolation that was soothing to me was soporific to modern young people, for whom the anonymity in which I wallowed was swallowing. Just like my father in his youth, my stepson was frantic to get out.
By contrast, Fletcher was born in Muscatine, and his never having moved from his home state didn't signal a lack of imagination; rather, a contented acceptance and even a certain profundity. "Iowa is somewhere," he said once, "and that's as much as anywhere can claim." The modesty of the Midwest, its secure, unpretentious self-knowledge, its useful growth of crops that people ate as opposed to the provision of elusive "services," appealed to us both.
Nearing the airport, I looked forward to having Edison around again — finally, company with appetite. My brother had been imbued with all the verve, the flair, the savoir faire that I lacked. Tall, fit, and flamboyant, he'd inherited our father's Jeff Bridges good looks without also assuming the oiliness that had always contaminated Travis. Edison's younger features were fine, almost delicate, and last I'd seen him the somewhat broader lines of his face at forty still hadn't buried the high cheekbones. He kept his dirty-blond hair just long enough to flare into an unruly corona around his crown. The manic keyboard of a smile glinted with a hint of wickedness, the predatory voracity of a big cat. In my early teens, my misfit friends were always smitten with my brother. He had an energy, an eagerness, a rapacity; even into adulthood, he never hugged me without lifting me off the floor. Edison was bound to breathe some life into that vast blank house on Solomon Drive, a residence that, since the advent of Fletcher's mad cycling and cheerless diet, had erred on the grim side.
For I was a homebody. I hated travel, and gladly let my brother act as my alter ego, catching red-eyes while I slept. I recoiled from attention; from childhood, Edison could never get enough of it. Aside from the obvious competition with our father, I was mystified why my brother wanted so badly for other people to know who he was. I could see coveting recognition for his talent, but that wasn't what made him tick. Ever since I could remember, he'd wanted to be famous.
Why would you want to sell millions of people on the illusion that they knew you, when they didn't? I adored the fortification of proper strangers, whose blithe disinterest constituted a form of protection, a soft, oblivious aspic of apathy in which I could hide, like a square of fruit cocktail in strawberry Jell-O. How raw and exposing instead to be surrounded by strangers who want something from you, who believe they not only know but own you. I couldn't imagine why you'd want droves of nitpickers to comment on your change of hairstyle, to regard everything from your peculiar furniture to the cellulite in your thighs as their business. For me, nothing was more precious than the ability to walk down the street unrecognized, or to take a seat in a restaurant and be left in peace.
But then, the joys of obscurity were my own discovery. Like everyone else in L.A., I was raised to regard being a nobody as a death. It may have been easier for me to reject that proposition because from the age of eight I grew up with celebrity at ready hand — or celebrity by association, the worst kind: unearned, cheap.
I found being admired myself unpleasant, and far preferred looking up to someone else. While I'd looked up to numerous teachers as a child, that comfortable hierarchy — in which the weaker party isn't humiliated by the submission — is decreasingly on offer in adulthood. Grown-ups are more likely to despise than adulate their bosses, and in my own self-employment I could only despise or adulate myself. Long gone were the days American electorates looked up to a president like JFK; we were more apt to look askance at politicians. Celebrities splashed across magazines excited less adoration than envy; in an era of the famous-for-being-famous, the assumption ran that with the right PR rep this talentless no-account with all the goodies could be you. I used to look up to my father, and the fact that I did no longer pained me more than I admitted. I loved Fletcher's graceful, sinuous furniture, but I didn't look up to him. In fact, maybe if you look up to your spouse there's something wrong.
I looked up to Edison. I knew little about jazz, but anyone who tripped out that many complicated notes without creating sheer cacophony was accomplished. I was never sure the level of recognition Edison had achieved in his rarified circles, but he had played with musicians whom folks in the know seemed to recognize, and I'd memorized their names in order to rattle off an impressive list to skeptics like Fletcher: Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Jeff Ballard, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Paul Motian, Evan Parker, and even, once, Harry Connick, Jr. Edison Appaloosa was listed on dozens of CDs, a complete set of which enjoyed pride of place beside our stereo — even if we didn't play them much, since none of us was big on jazz. I was in awe of his travels, his far-flung colleagues, his fearless public performances, and his sexy ex-wife — the vast canvas on which he'd painted his life. He may often have made me feel mousey, tongue-tied, not quite myself. I didn't mind so long as someone in our family was dashing and flashy, gunning a harvester through the hay of the daily grind. Fine, he smoked too much, and kept insensible hours. Fletcher and I were up to our eyeballs in sensible, and a splash of anarchy was overdue.
Still, I pulled into short-term parking with a pang of misgiving. Edison himself wasn't the beanpole he'd been as a track star in high school, and though he hadn't kept up with the running he'd always been one of those men (they simply don't make women like this) whose naturally athletic build sustained all manner of drinking and sloth. My brother was sure to ride me mercilessly for looking so shopping-mall and middle-aged.
Cedar Rapids Airport was small and user-friendly, its beige décor a picture frame for whatever more colorful passengers deplaned there. At the end of September, baggage claim was deserted, and I was relieved to have arrived before Edison's flight landed. If people divide into those who worry about having to wait and those who worry about keeping others waiting, I fell firmly into the second camp.
Soon the connecting flight from Detroit was posted on Carousel 3, and I texted Fletcher that the plane was on time. While passengers threaded from the arrivals hall and clumped around the belt, I loitered from a step back. In front of me, a lanky man in neat khaki slacks — with a tennis racket slung over a shoulder and the remnants of a summer tan — was conversing with a slender brunette. The young woman must have saved her apple from the in-flight snack; she polished it against her cashmere sweater as if the fruit would grant three wishes.
"I can't believe they gave him a middle seat," said the tennis player.
"I was grateful when you offered to switch," said the woman. "I was totally smashed against the window. But letting him have the aisle didn't help you much."
"They should really charge double, and leave the next seat empty."
"But can you picture the ruckus, if on top of having to put your hemorrhoid cream in a clear plastic bag you had to stand on a scale? There'd be an insurrection."
"Yeah, not socially practical. But I lost my armrest, and the guy was half in my lap. And you saw how hard it was for the attendant to get the cart past him."
"What gets me," the woman grumbled as luggage emerged on the belt, "is we all get the same baggage allowances. Our friend in aisle seventeen was packing a quarter ton in carry-on. I swear, next time they try to charge me extra because one pair of shoes has pushed me over twenty-six pounds, I'm going to offer to eat them."
The man chuckled. Meanwhile, no sign of Edison. I hoped he hadn't missed the plane.
"I gather they've had to recalculate the number of 'average' passengers older planes can take," said the man. "But you're right: normal people are subsidizing — "
"What 'normal people'?" the woman muttered. "Look around you."
Searching again for Edison, I scanned their fellow passengers, to whose geometry I'd become so inured that at first I missed the snotty woman's inference. Earlier generations built on acute angles, today's Americans were constructed with perpendiculars, and the posteriors lining the baggage belt were uniformly square. Given the perplexing popularity of "low rise" jeans, tight waistbands crossed the hips at their widest point and bit under the gut, which the odd short-cut top exposed in all its convex glory. I avoided the unfortunate fashion, but with those twenty extra pounds I didn't stand out from the crowd myself. So I felt personally insulted when the sportsman muttered to his companion, "Welcome to Iowa."
"Oh, that's mine." The woman slipped her Granny Smith, now very shiny, into her handbag before leaning close to her acquaintance. "By the way, on the plane with that guy, what I really couldn't stand? Was the smell."
I was relieved the woman's suitcase had arrived, since the pariah whom she and her seatmate had so cruelly disparaged must have been the very large gentleman whom two flight attendants were rolling into baggage claim in an extra-wide wheelchair. A curious glance in the heavy passenger's direction pierced me with a sympathy so searing I might have been shot. Looking at that man was like falling into a hole, and I had to look away because it was rude to stare, and even ruder to cry.
"Yo, don't recognize your own brother?" Wheeling to the familiar voice at my shoulder was like striding through a sliding door and smacking flat into plate glass. The smile I'd prepared in welcome crumpled. The muscles around my mouth stiffened and began to twitch.
" ... Edison? " I peered into the round face, its features stretched as if painted on a balloon. Searching the brown eyes, nearly black now so hooded, I think I was trying not to recognize him. The longish hair was lank, too dull. But the keyboard grin was unmistakable — if sulfurous from tobacco, and tinged with a hint of melancholy along with the old mischief. "Sorry, but I didn't see you."
"Find that hard to believe." Somewhere under all that fat was my brother's sense of humor. "Don't I get a hug?"
"Of course!" My hands nowhere near met on his curved back, the form soft and warm, but foreign. This time when he embraced me, he didn't lift me off the floor. Once we disengaged and I met his gaze, my chin rose only slightly. Edison had once been three inches taller than I, but he was no more. It was now less physically natural to look up to my brother.
"Do you — did you not need that wheelchair, then?"
"Nah, that was just the airline being impatient. Don't walk fast as I used to." Edison — or the creature that had swallowed Edison — heaved toward the baggage belt. "But I thought you didn't see me."
"It's been over four years. I guess it took me a minute. Please, let me take that." He allowed me to shoulder his battered brown bag. Visiting my brother in New York, I'd trailed after his ground-eating galumph, nervous of getting left behind in a strange city as he threaded nimbly through slower pedestrians without colliding with lit cigarettes. Yet walking with him toward the airport exit, I was obliged to employ the step-close, step-close of a bride down the aisle.
"So how was your flight?" Dull, but my mind was spinning. Edison had stirred a range of emotions in me over the years: awe, humility, frustration (he never shut up). But I had never felt sorry for my brother, and the pity was horrible.
"Plane could take off," he grunted. "Even with me on it. That what you mean?"
"I didn't mean anything."
"Then don't say anything."
I'm not supposed to say anything. I was already climbing the steep learning curve of an alien modern etiquette. Edison could crack wise at his own expense, and had he shown up in a form bearing some passable resemblance to the brother I remembered he most certainly would have hounded me about my hips. But when your brother shows up at the airport weighing hundreds more pounds than when last you met, you don't say anything.
We finally reached the exit. I said, casually, why don't I bring the car around, though I was parked only a hundred yards away. A middle-aged woman with smartly cut auburn hair who'd been loitering by the information booth had followed us outside — confirming my suspicion that Edison and I were being stared at.
"Sorry to bother you," said the stranger. "But are you by any chance Pandora Halfdanarson?"
For many a younger sibling with an older brother looking on, being solicited for an autograph, or whatever this woman wanted, would be a fantasy come true. But not today, and I came close to denying I was any such person just to get away. On the other hand, explaining to Edison why I'd lied would make a bigger mess, so I said yes.
"I thought so!" said the woman. "I recognized your face from the profile in Vanity Fair. Well, I just had to tell you: my husband gave me a Baby Monotonous doll for our anniversary. I don't know if you remember it — well, of course not, you must make so many — but it's wearing a stiff suit and snooty hat, and the TV remote is stitched in one hand. It says things like, George! You know you're supposed to cut down on salt! And George! You know I can't bear that shirt! And George! You know you don't understand Middle Eastern politics! Or sometimes it preens, I went to Bryn Maaaaaaaawr! I was offended at first, but then I just had to laugh. I'd no idea I was so critical and controlling! That doll helped save my marriage. So I wanted to thank you."
Don't get me wrong: I'm usually very nice to satisfied customers. I might not enjoy being recognized in public as much as some people would — as much as Edison would — but I don't take any la-di-da status for granted. The main thing that rattles me about such encounters is the embarrassment: this woman recognized me and I didn't recognize her, which didn't seem right.
So usually I'd have been warm and chatty and grateful, but not today. I shook off the fan mumbling, "Well, I'm very happy for you, then," and pivoted to the crosswalk.
"Is it true?" the woman cried at my back. "You're Travis Appaloosa's daughter?"
Annoyed, since I'd not told that to Vanity Fair and the journalist dug it up anyway, I declined to answer. Edison boomed behind me, "Got that ass-backwards, lady. Travis Appaloosa is Pandora Halfdanarson's father. Which is eating the fucker hollow."
Fortunately, when I drove up to the curb she'd cleared off. Hefting his bag into the back, I said, "Sorry about that woman. Honestly, that hardly ever happens."
"Price of fame, babe!" His tone was opaque.
It took some doing to get the front passenger seat of our Camry to go back to its last notch. Climbing inside, Edison braced one hand on the door; I worried whether the hinges could take the stress. I'd have helped him myself, but I didn't think he could lean on me without us both collapsing. He lowered himself into the bucket seat with the delicacy of a giant crane maneuvering haulage from a container ship. When he dropped the last few inches, the chassis tilted to the right. His knees jammed the glove compartment, and I had to give his door an extra oomph to get it shut. Those heavy hips were good for something.
I had trouble releasing the parking brake, with Edison's thigh pressed against it, and getting the gearshift out of park was hampered by the spill of his forearm. I was desperate to call Fletcher and warn him, though advance notice that the brother-in-law who had shown up at the airport looked thrice the size of the brother-in-law he'd once hosted would have been useless. As I pulled from the lot, my phone rang, and I recognized the caller. After our curbside encounter with that Baby Monotonous fan, this was the last thing we needed, and I didn't answer.
Edison rustled into the pockets of his black leather jacket — the hip kind with lapels, though this one would have required the benevolence of half a cow. I recognized it as a replacement of the calf-length leather trench coat that he'd worn for years, with a tie-belt, soft as the skin of an eggplant, always worn with the collar raised. He'd looked so cool in it, so Mafioso mysterious and — sleek. I wondered what happened to the original, out of nostalgia, but also because whether Edison had kept his smaller clothes might be a key to how he saw his future. This wider, unfitted jacket had more the texture of plastic, and none of the fine styling of his old trademark. I'd no idea where one got such clothes; I'd never seen apparel that size in Kohl's, or even at Target.
He withdrew what looked like a mashed Cinnabon, the white frosting drooling over its waxed paper. I did not say, You know, that strikes me as the last thing you need. I did not say, You know, I read once that those buns clock in at 900 calories apiece. I did not say, You know, we're going to be eating dinner in less than an hour. In all, everything I did not say would have nicely filled out the entire recording of one of my pull-string dolls.
Yet even the innocuous question I put instead sounded loaded: "So what have you been up to?" As if it weren't obvious.
"Few CDs," he said through frosting. "Mostly New York gigs, and a lot of the scene has moved to Brooklyn. Hooked up with this guitarist Charlie Hunter who's really starting to headline. Some killing up-and-comers: John Hebert, John O'Gallagher, Ben Monder, Bill McHenry. Really hit it off with Michael Brecker at a hang at the 55 Bar last year, and it's a damned shame he just died of leukemia. Man, between the two of us, we could have done Birdland standing room only. Regular thing in Nyack — restaurant, which is a drag, though with so many venues closing we all gotta take what we can get. Maine Jazz Camp for bread, but also 'cause your brother got a few promising protégés, believe it or not. Working on my own tunes, of course. Long tour of Spain and Portugal coming up in December. Maybe London Jazz Festival next fall. Some interest from Brazil, though that's not nailed. Money's not good enough. Cat in Rio's working on it."
I was accustomed to Edison's catalogue of names that meant nothing to me. Eyes on the road, I could almost hear my brother as he'd always sounded: brash, slick, sure of himself; whatever the disappointments of the present, something lucrative and high profile lay just around the corner. I thought: He'd never sounded fat over the phone.
"Talk to Travis lately?" asked Edison.
Travis Appaloosa sounds made up — since it was. "Dad," né Hugh Halfdanarson, had assumed his barmy stage name when I was six and Edison nine, too late to sound anything but artificial. So we always called him Travis, with an implicit elbow in the ribs, a get-a-load-of-this.
Yet during my childhood and adolescence Travis Appaloosa had lilted with the tuneful familiarity of Bill Bixby, Danny Bonaduce, and Barbara Billingsley. Maybe any sequence of syllables that rings out across the nation every Wednesday at nine simply cannot sound ridiculous. From 1974 to 1982, Travis Appaloosa was part of the landscape, just as Hugh Halfdanarson had always hoped.
"About a month ago," I said. "He's obsessed with his website. Have you seen it? There's a quiz on Joint Custody trivia. A 'Where Are They Now?' tab that updates you on whatever drugs Tiffany Kite is currently shooting up — "
"Or which ten-year-old boys Sinclair Vanpelt is shtupping — "
"Though you'd be surprised, Floy Newport is mayor of San Diego."
"The underestimated one. They're the ones who sneak up from behind. The devious little fuckers who plot behind your back. Who use the fact that nobody pays any attention to them to bide their time, and then make their move when you least expect it."
Edison's tone was playful but needling. Of the three kids in our father's supposedly cutting-edge one-hour drama, Floy Newport was the closest I had to a doppelgänger, although — oddly, since Edison of all people should know the difference — he was confusing Floy the actress with Maple Fields, the character she played. On Joint Custody, Maple was the middle one, sandwiched between prodigies, eternally unnoticed and not especially good at anything. Whereas Edison had reviled the character he most resembled in the show, Caleb Fields, as much as the vain pretty boy Sinclair Vanpelt who played him, I'd identified with Maple Fields completely.
"On that website," I said. "Believe it or not, Travis has also listed out the plots of every single episode. In order. Several paragraphs apiece."
"Talk about time on your hands."
"Too bad we didn't video that woman back at the airport for him. 'Travis Appaloosa' meant something to her. That's a dying breed."
"She was about forty-five? The right age. Probably watched every season. It's a whole cohort, Panda Bear. They're not that old, and they're not all dead yet."
"Only a few names from the shows you grew up with stick in your head," I said. "As a rule, Travis's isn't one of them."
"You'd be surprised. You don't use his surname. I still get asked about the geeze more often than you'd think."
In point of fact, I had gone by Pandora Appaloosa for a while in college. A little lost, I imagined that if other people thought they knew who I was, then I would know, too. But before long, the very query I was courting — " Any relation to Travis?" — began to seem not only like cheating but counterproductive. My classmates at Reed would only want to hear about my dad the TV star; in contemporary terms, I had reduced myself to a hyperlink to someone else's Wikipedia page. So I reverted to Halfdanarson when I moved to Iowa. In recent years even fans of retro TV were unlikely to recognize my father's pseudonym, which disuse was returning to the goofiness that had first sent my mother into peels of laughter. But I was mostly glad of having resumed the ungainly Swedish singsong my father had shed because Halfdanarson was my real name.
I'd usually have savored ragging on our father with Edison, that ritual touching base with our sick, stupid history. I rarely discussed my childhood with Fletcher. I hadn't even let on that my father had been a television actor in a wildly successful show until months into our relationship, and when I finally let it slip I was relieved to learn that Fletcher hadn't watched Joint Custody when it was on in prime time. Yet no matter how firmly I'd emphasized that my offbeat upbringing in Tujunga Hills was an arbitrary footnote in a life otherwise ordinary by design, Fletcher always took reference to the program as a pulling of rank, and I avoided the subject. Only with Edison, then, could I access a past that, however loath I was to depend on it for a sense of importance, I was reluctant to jettison completely. It was my past, whatever it meant, the only one I had.
I grew up with a set of parallels that expressed varying degrees of distortion and caricature. I didn't only have a father named Hugh Halfdanarson, but one who doubled ludicrously as Travis Appaloosa, who played another father named Emory Fields, a fake dad who was a far more successful paterfamilias than the self-absorbed monomaniac I saw only occasionally at home. I wasn't simply Pandora Halfdanarson, but could choose to be Pandora Appaloosa if I wished, and on Wednesday nights for eight years I recognized an idealized version of myself in Maple Fields, a sweeter and more altruistic little girl than I who was always trying to get her parents back together. In turn, Maple Fields was played by one of those rare child actors who wasn't unendurable, either on-screen or off-, even if Floy Newport was probably not her real name either. I idolized her and sometimes thought they should have kept filming the show and canceled our real family. So you can see how my fashioning mocking duplicates for a living might have seemed almost inevitable. After all, my favorite episode of Night Gallery was "The Doll."
This time driving back to New Holland our traditional sharing of notes — first and foremost, on whatever crackpot strategy Travis had recently devised to restore himself as the apple of the public eye — felt diversionary and dishonest. As we continued to discuss the latest on Joy Markle and Tiffany Kite, I could get with the program only so long as I trained my gaze on I-80. Side glances at the unaccountable mass in the passenger seat broke the spell, and it would suddenly seem a bit rich for Edison in this condition to be deriding anyone else for having failed to live up to youthful promise. For that dizzying sorrow on glimpsing the large gentleman in an airport wheelchair had only intensified, and I'd no idea how I would make it through the whole evening to come without falling apart.
Calling, "We're ho-ome!" in the hallway, I tinged the announcement by descending into a minor key, a note of warning that my family would fail to pick up on. Here I'd hoped to present Tanner with a member of his extended family whom he could plausibly "look up to," but with my brother's spine compacted two inches Tanner was already too tall. Nothing about being obese diminished Edison's accomplishments, but I had a feeling that wasn't the way Tanner would see things.
When Edison trailed me to the kitchen, Fletcher's face mirrored what my own must have looked like when I turned to my brother's voice at the airport: that flat smack against plate glass, the shock of having your expectations so thoroughly thwarted. My husband is not an impolite person, but when he looked up from the stove he said absolutely nothing and forgot to close his mouth. Time stretched. He was dying to look at me, but cutting away would have seemed unwelcoming. "Hey," he said feebly.
"Hey, bro, good to see you, man!" Edison clapped Fletcher's shoulder and attempted that double handshake up the elbow, but my husband was too dazed to do it right, and they settled on a pat of an embrace. Edison might not have precisely enjoyed this brand of encounter, but he must have had frequent enough experience with meeting someone who'd last seen him at about 165 to have learned to take a compensatory satisfaction in other people's transparent hypocrisy. They couldn't say anything, and whatever they said instead was so extravagantly and obviously at odds with what was going through their heads that the disparity must have stirred a sour internal smile.
"Tanner?" I led Edison over to where my stepson slouched at the table, taking in the scene while dawdling at his laptop. I could already read in the twist of his mouth the ruthless description of our new houseguest that he'd post on Facebook. "You remember your uncle Edison?"
"Not really," said Tanner warily.
"Hell, kid, you've really shot up," said Edison, extending his hand. "Can't say I'd recognize you on the street, Tan." Nobody called Tanner "Tan."
Tanner continued to slouch, so when he extended his arm to limply shake Edison's hand it was from as far away as possible. "Can't say I'd recognize you, either, Ed." Nobody called Edison "Ed."
"So you're seventeen? Figure my son Carson's about your age," Edison supposed.
Tanner exclaimed, "You don't even know?"
That's when Cody filtered into the doorway. With fair flyaway hair and a diffident manner, she was a shy girl, as I had been. Responding to her natural modesty and diligence, I'd tried for years not to show her any partiality over her more arrogant brother. Although no prodigy at the piano, the girl had a precocious sensitivity that would either be the making of her or would doom her for life as an easy mark. This was one of those moments in which she distinguished herself, for her instincts were pitch perfect. Cody took a mere instant to assess the situation, after which she ran to my brother crying, "Hi, Uncle Edison!" and gave him an unreserved hug.
He hugged her back, hard. I wondered how many times recently anyone had held him like that — with joy, with affection, with no trace of distaste. I wished I'd hugged him that way myself.
"So what's cookin'?" asked Edison, hovering by the stove.
"Ratatouille and shrimp with polenta," said Fletcher. "I'm afraid the shrimp are only the frozen supermarket kind," I said. "It's the landlocked Midwest, and Fletcher decides the only animal protein he'll eat is seafood."
"No prob — smells great!" Edison helped himself to a large nearby jar of peanuts and asked for a beer. I poured him a lager and followed him anxiously to the table. Fletcher had made the dining set, and the chairs all had finely curved arms — between which my brother was not going to fit.
"I'm sure you're worn out after your trip," I said hastily, "but you may not be — comfortable in these chairs." I did a rapid inventory: the living room was furnished with Fletcher's rigid normal-size- person creations. But one broken-down recliner in the master bedroom was leftover from the days I lived alone; I'd refused to part with an ugly chair so sumptuous for curling up to read. My husband's confabulations of oak, cedar, and ash were more sensuous for the eye than the ass.
I tried to be offhand about it. Turning off the ratatouille, Fletcher was stoic, Cody eager to help. Once upstairs, my husband and I finally met each other's eyes. Desperate to talk to him for hours, I could only shake my head in dismay.
"Mom," Cody whispered as we knelt on one side of the recliner and Fletcher took the other. "What happened to Uncle Edison?"
"I don't know, sweetie."
"Is he sick?"
"According to the latest thinking on the subject" — we heaved to a stand — " yes." Though I was personally unsure how labeling obesity an "illness" got anyone anywhere.
"Does he eat too much?"
"I think so."
"Why doesn't he stop?"
"That's a good question." We paused at the top of the stairs.
"He makes me sad," said my stepdaughter.
"Me, too." I kept my voice steady for her sake. "Very, very sad."
I was determined not to make a big deal out of this project, but the recliner was heavy, and in order to get it around the turn at the landing we had to tilt the chair on its side. A certain amount of huffing and Fletcher's barked directions must have leaked to the kitchen. When we lugged in the recliner, Edison was holding forth to Tanner while leaning on the prep island. I felt bad about making him stand so long, which he must have found tiring. The peanuts were finished.
"I'm not dissing Wynton Marsalis," Edison was opining. "He's brought in some bread, if nothing else. But the trouble with Wynton is he feeds this whole nostalgia thing, like jazz is over, you hear what I'm sayin'? Like it's in a museum, under glass. Nothing wrong with keeping the standards alive, so long as you don't turn the whole field into one big snoring PBS doc. 'Cause it's still evolving, dig? I mean, you got a certain amount of lost free crap, which the public hates, and drives what few folks do listen to jazz even further into the ass of the past. Cats who blow all freaky don't appreciate that even Ornette riffed on an underlying structure. But other Post-Bop cats out there are killing. Even some of Miles's contemporaries are still playing, still innovating: Sonny, Wayne ..."
"Talk about 'ass of the past,' " said Tanner, focused on his keyboard. "What's with all the 'cat' and 'man' and 'dig'? That shit must have been pretty moldy by the time you were a kid."
"Yo, every profession got its patois," said Edison.
"It's true, they really do talk like that," I said, after we'd set the recliner down in the kitchen to rest. "I've visited your uncle several times in New York, and all the other jazz musicians talk the same way. Time warp. It's hilarious."
When Edison withdrew his cigarettes, I urged him to the patio. We didn't allow smoking in the house.
"Jesus, it's like he's trying to sound like a jazz musician," Tanner grumbled once Edison had shambled outside. "Like some stereotype of a jazz musician that wouldn't wash in a biopic because it's trite. You're not going to tell me, Pando, that he grew up speaking jive."
"Just because you learn something in adulthood doesn't mean it's fake," I snapped. "You could be a little more gracious. Like, give us a hand, because I think we're going to have to move the table."
Lodging the chair at the head of the table was an operation, since the recliner wouldn't fit in front of the step up to the living room without our moving the table a foot toward the patio door — which meant Tanner had to push his own chair right up against the glass. Reseated but cramped, he looked put out, doubly so when he had to get up again to let Edison inside. As my brother sank with obvious relief into the crazed leather cushion, I caught Fletcher appraising the room critically. He was house-proud. Now the room was off-center, and the dirty maroon eyesore hardly set off his dining table.
"Hey, Pando, I almost forgot," said Tanner, typing with the very urgency I had dreaded. "Some photographer called while you were gone, about a re-sked of the Bloomberg Businessweek shoot. Wish you'd pick up your damn iPhone. Taking a handwritten message on a pad is like carving on the wall of a cave."
Oh, God, not another photo shoot," I said before I realized how that sounded. "I hate them," I continued, them making it worse, since the very plurality was the problem. "I can't stand having to decide what to wear, and it doesn't even matter since I always look hideous," always continuing to dig my grave. Since it was true enough, in my haste to say something more self-deprecating still to cover for the embarrassing fact of the shoot itself, I almost added, but pulled up short just in time, that lately all I could think when I saw pictures of myself in the media was that I looked fat.
"They don't always come out so bad," said Tanner. "The New York magazine cover, where they added a pull-string on your back? That one was a kick."
"Little cheesy, though," Edison proclaimed from his new throne, and drained the last of his beer. "That rag's gone to shit. One step from Entertainment Weekly." It shouldn't have taken me so long to realize that Edison might have regarded that cover as an invasion of sorts. New York was his patch.
"You ever been in New York magazine?" Tanner charged my brother.
"Nah. I'm more the Downbeat type."
As I retrieved napkins at his side, Tanner muttered, "Look more like the beat down type to me." I hoped Edison hadn't heard him.
I should have been glad that Tanner stuck up for me, but I didn't want the responsibility of being the one he looked up to. Baby Monotonous had come to me flukishly. I hadn't planned the venture or even wanted it, much less worked hard for it until it landed in my lap. I believed I set a bad example.
"Well, we should all enjoy this making of hay while the sun shines," I said, laying plates. "Baby Monotonous dolls are a fad. Fads don't last. Like pet rocks — a perfectly ridiculous gift item that you kids are too young to remember. They lasted about five minutes. In that five minutes, someone made a bundle. But if he wasn't smart, he'd have been left with whole warehouses full of stones in stupid little boxes. I've been very lucky, and you should all be prepared for that luck to run out. Orders are already starting to level off, and I wouldn't be surprised to see those dolls start cropping up on eBay by the hundred." Orders hadn't leveled off.
"We're never putting Dad's doll on eBay!" said Cody.
"Pando, what's with trashing your own company all the time?" said Tanner. "Someone finally gets a business off the ground in this family, and all you can do is apologize."
"Thanks a lot, Tanner," said Fletcher at the stove.
"Basement full of furniture says this house got only one going concern," said Tanner.
"Nobody buys quality anymore."
"Thanks a lot, Fletcher," I said.
It was a pale facsimile of family banter — the fast-paced, rollicking back-and-forth to which our foursome had indeed risen on occasion, but which I generally located only on television. I'd grown up in such proximity to scripted family follies that you'd think I could have done a better job of faking it. But ever since I'd walked in with Edison in tow our interchanges had been forced.
For once when I told the kids to wash their hands before dinner, there were no groans; with a thick glance between them that I recognized from my own childhood, they scooted off, both spurning the nearest bathroom for the one upstairs. After a lag, I followed. I wasn't sure how I wanted to admonish them — probably with something bland and pointless about trying to be nice. When I arrived outside the door, they weren't even bothering with the pretense of running water.
"Then, like, he drops some peanuts," Tanner was saying in a harsh whisper, "and stoops to pick them up, right? Except he loses his balance, 'cause that whale gut throws him forward, and he ends up on his hands and knees! I'm not kiddin', Code, the son of a bitch couldn't get off the floor! So I had to help drag his ass upright, and I thought we was both goin' down! Even his hand is huge. And sweaty."
"He is kinda gross," said Cody. "Like when he bends down, and his shirt's too small so it hikes up and you can see his crack with little black hairs in it, and these huge butt-blobs bulge over his belt."
"Guy could do his own retro TV show, just like Grampa's: My Three Chins," said Tanner. "And he's got a bigger rack than Pando."
"If I looked like that, I'd just wanna die. His ankles are bigger around than your thighs. Hey, you think Mom knew he'd turned into such a load?"
"I kinda doubt it. But notice how she keeps pretending how everything's all normal? Like, nobody's supposed to mention that 'Uncle Edison' barely fits through the fucking door."
I'd heard enough. Clearing my throat, I walked in. "Get it out of your system now. Just because someone's overweight doesn't mean he has no feelings." Yet when I closed the door behind us, the atmosphere remained conspiratorial.
"But how long's this guy gonna hang around?" said Tanner. "In twenty-four hours he could bust the whole place up. What if he sits on the john and it cracks to pieces?"
"I don't know how long he'll stay," I said quietly. "But while he's here, I want you to imagine what it might be like if you two grow up, and then you, Tanner, visit your sister and her family, and maybe you've had a hard time, and maybe you've been hitting the Häagen-Dazs. Wouldn't you want your sister to still treat you like the same person? Wouldn't you feel hurt if her family made fun of you?"
"Tanner will never get fat!" said Cody. "He's got to watch his figure so he can keep pawing all over his girlfriends."
I shot back, "That's what I thought about my brother."
That sobered them up. As we walked back downstairs, Cody dragged on my hand. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "What I said, I didn't mean it." She was close to tears. I assured her with a squeeze that I knew she hadn't. Prone to self-recrimination, Cody was all too capable of tossing sleeplessly that night, berating herself for having been mean about her uncle even out of his earshot. I'd only ever seen her try to be nasty to impress Tanner, and she was lousy at it. At school, she perennially befriended the social dregs out of compassion, pulling her own mid-level status down several notches in the process.
We sat down to dinner. Fletcher passed his shrimp dish, in a tangy tomato, zucchini, and eggplant sauce over bars of baked polenta. As a special concession, he allowed the rest of us to spike it with Parmesan. The guest, Edison helped himself first, after which our largest rectangular baking pan was half empty. I took a tiny serving to ensure enough remained for everyone else, and Cody did likewise — unless the totem of excess at the end of the table was putting her off her feed. Me, I still had an appetite, but couldn't meet my brother's eyes; simply looking at him felt unkind. So I stole glances when he was occupied with his food, terrified he'd catch me staring — at the rolls of his neck, the gapes between straining buttons on his shirt, the tight, bulging fingers that recalled bratwurst in the skillet just before the skin splits.
I announced that Cody was studying the piano, and she said she "sucked," but that she'd be grateful if Edison would give her a few lessons. He acted game — "Sure, kid, no problemo" but his tone was surprisingly cool, considering that he'd usually jump at the chance to show off. I encouraged Fletcher to show my brother what he was working on in the basement later, though Edison couldn't come up with anything to ask about cabinetry besides, "What's the latest project?" (another coffee table) and "What materials?" (though Fletcher was doing some striking work with bleached cow bones, his terse reply was "walnut"). There's nothing more leaden than this sort of exchange, and awareness that Edison didn't care about the answers to his lame questions made Fletcher protective and closed. Yet Edison grew more animated when I pressed Tanner to tell his step-uncle about his interest in becoming a screenwriter.
"The feature film industry is a total crapshoot," Edison advised, rearing back in the recliner. "Half the time when after years of frustration the project's finally lined up with casting, crew, everything, some douche pulls the money. Most Hollywood screenwriters just do rewrites of other people's rewrites, and never see a script shot. You should think about TV, man. They get shit out the door. Travis, our dad — I guess you're sort of related, right? Wouldn't count on a guy who sells Pocket Fisherman on Nick at Nite to provide you a lot of contacts. But he may still know people who know people, and that's the way it's done. Me, I got friends out there who went into the industry, including one guy at HBO. Be glad to put you in touch."
If I could have gotten away with it, I'd have been pulling the ridge of a flattened hand across my throat. Tanner's expectations were already unrealistic. I didn't want him encouraged.
"Thanks," Tanner grunted skeptically.
"Tanner's met his step-grampa," I said. "A cautionary tale."
"What's that mean?"
"An unpleasant story that should keep you from making the same mistake."
"What's so cautionary about my grampa being a TV star?" I noted that in this instance Tanner had dropped the "step."
"Was a TV star," I said. "He spends most of his time opening used-car lots and doing Rotary Club lunches — "
"Lecturing on environmentalism, believe it or not," said Edison with a laugh. "Chump never recycled a Coke can in his life."
" — or," I went on, "printing truckloads of anniversary T-shirts, when Travis Appaloosa is the only man on God's earth who knows or cares when the first episode of Joint Custody aired on NBC. TV Land used to occasionally have him on in the graveyard slot, but he burned that bridge by badgering the channel to run Joint Custody marathons the way they do with Twilight Zone and Andy Griffith. Last time I talked to him he'd gotten a fire under him about putting together a reunion show like The Brady Bunch did — only the child actors Travis worked with grew up to be wasters, bar one, and the mayor of San Diego has better things to do. Cautionary. I'll say."
I knew I'd been going on, but someone had to counter the deadly proffering of Edison's helping hand. I was loath for our kids to feel exceptional for the wrong reasons, and so to fall prey to the same unjustified sense of importance from which I'd suffered as a kid. While superficially self-effacing, my keeping my parentage under wraps at school may have been even more corrupting than Edison's bannering of his father's identity at every opportunity. I'd still smugly carried around the fact that my father was Travis Appaloosa like a secret charm, an amulet to ward off evil, when really it was no better than a pet rock.
Even more averse than I to playing up my Burbank connection, Fletcher changed the subject — turning to the one topic sure to fill out the rest of the meal: all that jazz.
"Hey, I've played with some heavy cats, dig?" Having scraped out the remains of the polenta, Edison upended the bowl of Parmesan on top. Tanner and Cody locked eyes, which bulged in unison. "Stan Getz hired me for three years — paid better than Miles, believe it or not. But just my luck the really iconic recordings haven't been the gigs I've been on. So nobody remembers that, yeah, Edison Appaloosa played with Joe Henderson because I wasn't on Lush Life. Paul Motian, too — and it's hardly my fault the guy has pretty much stopped playing with pianists. And, man, I could shoot myself over the fact that nobody, nobody thought to record that jam session with Harry Connick, Jr., at the Village Gate in 1991. Harry Connick! Rare for him to sing in those days. Crack pianist himself, and said I had 'the touch.' Okay, he wasn't big yet. But Jesus fucking Christ, I could have been everywhere."
I didn't enjoy the thought: He sounds like Travis. It bothered me that my brother was still trotting out the same list of musicians that I'd learned years before to impress aficionados. It was a list, apparently, that Edison recited to himself.
"Thing that really gets me in New York these days," he went on, Parmesan pasted in the corners of his mouth, "is this obsession with 'tradition.' Some of the younger cats, they sound like fuddy-duddies. Studying all these chords and intervals like those mindless fucks in madrassas memorizing the Koran. Ornette, Trane, Bird — they were iconoclasts! They weren't about following the rules, but tearing them up! Personally I blame jazz education. Sonny, Dizzy, Elvin — they didn't get any degrees. But these good doobies coming out of Berklee and the New School — they're so fucking respectful. And serious. It's perverse, man. Like getting a Ph.D. in how to be a dropout."
We didn't usually have wine with dinner, but tonight was an occasion. Edison had opened the second bottle — which made Fletcher's jaw clench — helping to explain why my brother was dropping consonants, slurring vowels, and adopting a drawling cadence like the honorary African-American he considered himself to be. Most of the founding fathers of jazz were black, and Edison claimed being a white guy was a disadvantage in the field, especially in Europe, where "real" jazz musicians had to look the part.
" ... See, what Wynton's done by bringing in Jazz at Lincoln Center is cast the genre as elitist. As high culture, high art. Elitist, can you believe it? A form that came straight outta whites-only water fountains? But that's the drill now, man. Middle-aged boomers hit the Blue Note when they're too out of it to keep up with hip-hop and figure they need to ditch pop for something more sophisticated. It's a pose, man ..."
As my mind wandered, I considered the script for an Edison doll:
I'd have been famous, man, if only I was black!
I've played with some heavy cats.
Jazz prodigy my ass! Sinclair Vanpelt couldn't play "Chopsticks."
Yeah, as a matter of fact, Travis Appaloosa is my dad.
I can't believe no one recorded the Harry Connick jam.
Yo, pass the cheese.
Well, that last line would be a recent addition. I collected the plates, while Edison heaved from the maroon recliner — again — to head to the patio to smoke. So Tanner had once more to get up, push his chair in, and maneuver out of the way. It was chilly for the end of September, and each lumbering departure and reentry lowered the temperature by five degrees. The central heating couldn't keep up, and Cody had to slip upstairs to get us both sweaters. I was reconciled that Tanner and Cody had to negotiate a world in which people smoked. Given that my brother was not only chronically short of breath but also himself a heavy cat, the kids probably wouldn't view him as a role model. But Fletcher tensed every time we went through all this brouhaha for an unfiltered Camel. He didn't want anyone smoking around the kids.
I unveiled my pecan pie. Fletcher wouldn't have any, but it used to be my brother's favorite dessert as a boy. If glutinous with corn syrup, the pie was already baked; besides, look at him: what difference did it make? Although I guessed that's what he routinely told himself.
"Edison, you want ice cream with this?" I called plaintively. But I knew the answer.
I lay on my back in bed while Fletcher folded his clothes, which without the maroon recliner he had to stack on his dresser. Finally I said, "I had no idea."
After slipping between the sheets, Fletcher, too, lay in a wide-eyed stupor. We seemed to be experiencing a domestic posttraumatic stress, as if recovering from an improvised explosive device planted at our dining table.
"I'm starving," said Fletcher.
A bit later he said, "I rode fifty miles today."
I let him get it out of his system. After another couple of minutes he said, "That polenta dish was huge. I thought we'd have scads left over."
I sighed. "You should have had some pie. Before Edison finished it off." I nestled my head on his chest. For once his build seemed not a reprimand, but a marvel.
"What happened to him?"
I let Fletcher's question dangle. It would take me months to formulate any kind of an answer.
"I'm sorry," said Fletcher, stroking my hair. "I'm so very, very sorry."
I was grateful that he opted for sympathy over judgment. Sympathy for whom? For his wife, first of all. For Edison as well, obviously. But maybe — in a situation I'd unwittingly gotten us into and had myself contrived as horrifyingly open-ended — for everybody.
Sometimes you need some distance to appreciate a classic.
That was certainly the case for John Williams' novel Stoner. When it was originally published in 1965, the only publication to mention the book at all was The New Yorker, in its "Briefly Noted" column. The novel received admiring reviews over the years, but sold just 2,000 copies and was almost immediately forgotten.
Fast forward to today and the book is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. It is a best-seller across much of Europe, including the Netherlands, where it has been the best-selling novel for the past two months. But it is not the action-packed thriller or steamy romance you might expect to be topping the charts. It is a quiet, slim novel about a young man who leaves a hardscrabble farm in Missouri to become a literature professor in 1910.
"It sort of pays tribute to a man whose life is, in one sense, utterly ordinary, but, in another sense, rich as anyone's life can be," said Edwin Frank, who runs New York Review of Books Classics, which republished Stoner in 2006.
But in the mid-1960s, Americans weren't drawn to that style.
"That kind of realism was not in any sense fashionable at that point," Frank said.
So the novel and Williams, who died in 1994, faded into obscurity, forgotten to all but a few aficionados.
When New York Review of Books Classics republished Stoner, it was reviewed quite well, but sold modestly at first — until it caught the attention of Anna Gavalda, one of France's best-selling novelists. She had to read Stoner in English — there wasn't a French translation — but she says she still felt a deep connection with the book.
"I think it's a book I could have written myself because I feel really close to the author and the narrator, who, in my opinion are probably a bit of the same person," she said.
Gavalda liked it so much that she asked her editor to buy the rights, so she could translate it herself. And the book took off.
"My books sell really well in France," she explained, "so when all the other European editors saw that it was me who translated this book, they were all curious about why Anna Gavalda translated it, and so they all bought the rights."
Back in New York, Frank can only speculate as to why Stoner has so moved European readers like Gavalda.
"[Stoner] resonates I think, partly, because of the art with which the story has been told," he said. "So even as he sets the scene in Columbia, Missouri, at the same time, it could be anywhere."
There was a time around 2003, before e-books and e-readers, when it seemed that everywhere you turned — in an airport, on a bus or anywhere people read — people were lost in The Kite Runner. An epic tale set in Afghanistan, the book sold more than 7 million copies in the U.S. and catapulted the author, Khaled Hosseini, onto the global literary stage.
Hosseini followed that success with another book about his homeland, A Thousand Splendid Suns, which also became a best-seller.
Six years later, Hosseini has written a third heart-wrenching tale, set in Afghanistan, California, Paris and the Greek islands. And The Mountains Echoed is a story about family — specifically the siblings Abdullah and Pari, separated at a young age. Early on in the book, a young Abdullah thinks that he would rather forget Pari than be haunted by her memory:
Abdullah would find himself on a spot where Pari had once stood, her absence like a smell pushing up from the earth beneath his feet, and his legs would buckle, and his heart would collapse in on itself ... Pari hovered, unbidden, at the edge of Abdullah's vision everywhere he went. She was like the dust that clung to his shirt. She was in the silences that had become so frequent at the house, silences that welled up between their words, sometimes cold and hollow, sometimes pregnant with things that went unsaid, like a cloud filled with rain that never fell. Some nights he dreamed that he was in the desert again, alone, surrounded by the mountains, and in the distance a single tiny glint of light flickering on, off, on, off, like a message.
Hosseini talks with NPR's Rachel Martin about the image that inspired the book, the pressures of success and why he considers all his novels love stories.
On how the book is centered on the siblings Abdullah and Pari
"It begins in 1952. Abdullah and Pari — Abdullah is 10 and Pari is 3, and they're living in a remote and impoverished village with their father and their stepmother and their baby stepbrother. And the family finds itself at a critical point. They've lost a baby to the winter the year before, and winter is around the corner again, and the family is desperate to survive the winter, and they're about to make a decision that is going to change the lives of these two characters, Abdullah and Pari. And it's this decision which ends up splitting the brother and the sister, which informs, really, the heart of the book."
On the role of memory in the novel
"In some ways, I see the characters in this book, as with all of us in real life, as victims of the passage of time. And memory is the way ... we gauge that. So memory is a recurring theme in this book and the question is raised a number of times about whether memory is a blessing — something that safeguards in all the things that are dear to you — or is memory a curse — something that makes you relive the most painful parts of your life, the toil, the struggle, the sorrows."
On why the book shifts between many different characters' perspectives
"It kind of happened that way as I wrote it. The novel began very, very small, and it began with a single image in my head that I simply could not shed: ... It was the image of a man walking across the desert and he's pulling a little Radio Flyer red wagon, and in it there's a little girl about 3 years old, and there's a boy walking behind him, and these three people are walking across the desert. And I had no idea who they were, or why they were walking across the desert, what the story was behind them, what their dynamic was. And I sat down to explore that. And then it just kept snowballing. I began to see backstory, and I began to see how what happened to these three characters, particularly the little girl and the little boy, would have such a profound impact, not only on their life but on the lives of so many different characters. And I listened to the voice of those other characters, and I went chasing them."
On whether the book feels finished
"No, I would love to go back and write two, three, or four or five more [chapters], but at some point somebody has to stop you. None of my novels feel finished to me. I mean, if I had my way I'd go back and add and edit and take out and reshape. But at some point you do have to stop."
On why the political chaos of Afghanistan is less central in this novel than in previous novels
"Part of it was as I wrote the characters, it just kind of, the way it came to me and the way they were shaped, their struggles turned out to be far more intimate and personal. I mean, often it had to do with loss — of memory, of faculty, of love — and so the impact of the toil in Afghanistan is still there, but I think its effect on the lives of the characters is less resounding.
"I hope a day will come when we write about Afghanistan, where we can speak about Afghanistan in a context outside of the wars and the struggles of the last 30 years. In some way I think this book is an attempt to do that."
On the kinds of relationships his novels have explored
"I think at the core, all three of my books have been love stories — and they haven't been traditional love stories in the sense that a romantic love story between a man and a woman, you know, they've been stories of love between characters where you would not expect love to be found. So it is always these intense relationships that form under unexpected circumstances. And it's the same with this book — there are a number of instances where you have relationships between characters that are very intense and life-changing and yet they're between people you would not expect it to happen. And for some reason I'm drawn to that. I love writing about that. I'm not very interested in writing about sort of traditional, romantic love — I think that's something that's in my books, but not one that I seem to be all that interested in."
On whether he feels pressure from the extraordinary success of his first two books
"I don't feel any pressure to be ... 'successful' in economic or commercial or number of books sold and so on. The real angst comes from the very real possibility that one day I will sit, and I will have nothing more to say. Because I enjoy so much the process of writing — losing myself in another person's life, kind of going off to these imaginary places and looking up from the computer and eight hours have passed and I have no idea where they went. And writing things that, to me, feel intimate and real and genuine. I don't take that for granted. So the pressure that I feel inside is, what if that ends someday and I've said everything I have to say? And I think a lot of writers have that, and that's something very real every time I sit at the computer. That's a presence in the room with me."
On where he finds inspiration
"I'm kind of like those big satellite dishes that are constantly on and waiting to hear voices from outer space, like in Contact. My mind is always like that. I'm always open and just kind of waiting to receive some kind of hint about something that will compel me, and that's kind of how this book happened. I just kind of had a very open mind and I was waiting for something to happen, and it just really, literally like a flash of lightning, out of the blue, this image of these three people walking across the desert, and that was just the seed from which everything else came."
Robert Langdon is back. The Harvard art professor in custom tweeds — and an ever-present Mickey Mouse watch — wakes up in a hospital after getting grazed in the head by a bullet, wondering how he ended up in Florence. He's got a sinister artifact sewn into his coat and just a few hours to keep the world from a grim biological catastrophe.
Dan Brown, whose book The Da Vinci Code — and several Robert Langdon sequels — has sold more than 200 million copies around the world, has written his first new novel in four years. Inferno is a story that ranges around some of the most splendid urban scenery in Italy, sweeps a couple of learned beauties to his side, twists through a Dante code, and raises questions — in Latin, Italian and English — about how the human species can keep going.
Brown tells NPR's Scott Simon that he doesn't really have a formula for writing best-sellers. "I wish I did, I could write them a lot faster," he laughs. "They all have certainly similar elements — there's codes and symbols and beautiful locations, but no, I don't have a formula that I know of."
On being inspired by Dante
"I have written a lot about the fine arts, but I'd never written about the literary arts, and so on some level Dante really, you know, spoke to me, as new ground but also familiar ground. Like the Mona Lisa, The Divine Comedy is, you know, one of those great ... human artistic achievements that transcends its moment in history and becomes a cultural touchstone. Feels like very — perfect ground for Robert Langdon."
On his research in Italy — is it as fun as it sounds?
"I hate to say this — it's a blast. It's kind of a Catch-22 now because, you know, since The Da Vinci Code I have access to places and people that I didn't have access to before, so that's a lot of fun for somebody like me. But I'm always trying to keep a secret. I don't want people to know what I'm writing about, so that's, I often end up asking — half the questions I ask are about something totally unrelated, and half of the places I go see are unrelated, just trying to keep people off the track of what I'm writing about."
On creating Inferno's villain, "evil genius" Bertrand Zobist
"In any novel, you would hope that the hero has someone to push back against ... I find the most interesting villains [are] those who do the right things for the wrong reasons, or the wrong things for the right reasons — either one is interesting. I love the gray area between right and wrong. Here is somebody who says we have an enormous population problem on this planet and everybody's turning a blind eye, and there are no simple solutions, but there is a solution. And while it's terrifying, maybe there's a silver lining to it. Maybe he's actually the good guy in all this."
On his place in today's world of literature
"You know, it's funny, I don't know where I would place myself in the literary landscape. I really just write the book that I would want to read. I put on the blinders, and I really — it is, for me, that simple. I'm somebody who likes codes and ciphers and chases and artwork and architecture, and all the things you find in a Robert Langdon thriller."
Back in 2009, Katie Shelly was craving an eggplant Parmesan. Small problem: She'd never made it before. But she remembered that a college roommate used to make it, so she called her up and asked for the recipe.
The friend told her she needed to start with three bowls — one for breadcrumbs, one for egg and one for flour, salt and pepper. "In that moment, it was totally natural for me to just draw the three bowls instead of writing all that out in words," says Shelly, whose day job is as a visual designer.
As the friend continued the recipe, Shelly continued drawing it out with arrows and eggplant slices on a tray. When she pulled out the scrap of loose-leaf in the kitchen, she found it much easier to cook from that than a traditional recipe that relies on numerical steps.
And that's where the idea for Shelly's upcoming cookbook, Picture Cook, originated. The book is filled with 50 illustrated recipe "blueprints" for basic meals — from snacks like Krispy Kale to more hefty dishes like White Lasagna. Her recipes are bound to appeal to visual learners; Shelly hopes they're also less daunting than traditional recipes.
"If you pick up a book from Emeril Lagasse or Julia Child or Mario Batali or whoever, there's a little bit of intimidation there. ... But this book is just coming from little old me. You don't have to feel like you're going into a Top Chef competition with whatever you create."
In fact, she doesn't think she's "exceptionally culinarily inclined" — "I make food that is tasty and does the job," she says. But she learned to cook by experimenting with her friends and hopes learning by seeing will encourage others to improvise as well.
Already, lots of people seem to have responded to her novel approach to recipes: Traffic to her website exploded after the illustration blog Drawn featured her carrot soup recipe in 2010.
Other design blogs picked up the illustrations, Mark Bittman tweeted about her, and people were emailing to ask where they could buy her book. Picture Cook didn't exist yet, but all the positive feedback from the online community motivated her to start talking to publishers. Three years later, her book is close to hitting the shelves: It comes out in October but is available for pre-order now.
Shelly recognizes that while some people love the illustrated recipes, others find them confusing.
"It's just another way of slicing information," she says. "There will always people who prefer the original way of doing recipes, and if you're in that camp, then no need to buy this book. I'm not suggesting that the whole world switch over to this format. But I think for people who are into it, if it works for you, then that's awesome."