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Book Review

Witty family saga packs 'Punch'

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Karen Campbell
July 21, 2008

The Punch
By Noah Hawley
Chronicle Books, 311 pp., $23.95

The titular "punch" of Noah Hawley's delightful and provocative third novel is delivered by David Henry squarely to his brother Scott's nose, and when the novel begins, the two men sit side by side in the emergency room at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York City. David cradles his broken hand, Scott holds an ice pack to his broken nose, and the two silently ruminate over the thousands of miles and complicated family dynamics they've navigated over the past few days. "They've confronted death and strippers and the sudden life-altering emergence of God. They've drunk too much and sprinted into oncoming traffic. Worse, they've had to spend time with their mother. Far, far too much time."

It's a wry, slightly surrealistic, and telling prelude to the story of the two brothers, who journey from Portland, Ore., where their alcoholic mother, Doris, lives, to Los Angeles to New York and finally to Maine on a pilgrimage to spread the ashes of their dead father, Joe, in the ocean. Along the way, darkly hilarious dysfunction sets the tone for soul-searching, acceptance, startling revelations, and all manner of chaos.

David, the eldest son, is a pharmaceutical sales executive with four kids and two wives, one on each coast. He didn't start out to have two wives. He thought he was pretty happily married to Tracey in Los Angeles when he had a fling with Joy while on a business trip to New York, and she got pregnant. "And when she told him, he found himself asking her to marry him, heard the words coming out of his mouth, even as this polite, semi-English-sounding voice piped up in his head and said, Excuse me sir, but aren't you already married? . . . But it's not his fault. Things just kind of . . . escalated."

Younger brother Scott has his own conflicted life, from his inability to commit to relationships to his unsatisfying career as a corporate mole, the kind that monitors customer service calls in the name of "quality assurance."

Then there's contentious Doris, who is such an exasperating piece of work that the brothers constantly fight over who ends up with her. "This is how it is with them, the tug of war. You go. No, you go. They might as well play Rock-Paper-Scissors for who gets to take care of their mother." But through Doris, Hawley evokes the heartbreaking voice of one in thrall to "the creaky surrender of old age."

Hawley has a wonderful way with irony. Threaded throughout the novel are comic observations both descriptive and anecdotal that are so astutely insightful they can take your breath away, as when he recounts Joe Henry's last hours, dying of cancer but sneaking one final cigarette. He explains Scott's love affair with Los Angeles, ". . . the blatant lie of it. We can be young and rich and beautiful forever. L.A. is all about suspension of disbelief. From impossible movie pitches to houses stilted up on fault-ridden hills, the whole city is based on an idea that anything you dream up can come true." But on the other hand, Hawley reels off scathing commentaries on celebrity and wealth.

Hawley seeds the book with fascinating tangential musings, especially regarding theories of religion, time, and memory, pulling in the theoretical physics of Einstein and Stephen Hawking, and the mathematical theories of Godel. Then he can just as quickly evoke the poet, as when he recalls Scott's first unconsummated love. "It was just a fleeting desire, a hummingbird of a romance, tiny, unborn, and yet it lives in his mind like a hermit in the forest, building a shack, writing a manifesto of loss."

Hawley writes for film and TV (including the charmingly irreverent "Bones") and occasionally he launches into the kinds of vivid descriptions and scenarios one imagines could easily grace a movie or TV script, especially the climactic moment of the title. But he cleverly goes deeper with his "back story," delving into character, playing with time, careening forward and back in the blink of an eye. And amidst the dryly comic vignettes are some surprisingly moving, heart-melting moments. On the day the two brothers finally scatter their father's ashes off Bailey's Island, Scott remembers idyllic summer days growing up there. It's the kind of childhood memory we all should be able to treasure - dysfunction and all.

Karen Campbell is a freelance writer based in Brookline.

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