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Book Review

‘Mr. Peanut’ offers food for thought

But its parts not quite a meal

By Carlo Woolf
July 12, 2010

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Adam Ross was thinking too much when he crafted “Mr. Peanut.’’ His debut is both more than a novel and less.

The talented, ambitious Ross knows many things about many things, from the films of Hitchcock to the mathematical, mind-bending art of Escher to the Sam Sheppard murder case to medieval architecture to the sturdiness of model airplanes. (He could have used a better fact-checker, however; in one scene he describes a photo taken in 1944 of a couple sitting in a Plymouth Fury, a car that didn’t debut until 1956). While I could not stop reading Ross’s book, I often felt I was doing so out of obligation. It didn’t propel me; it dragged me along.

As this bit of metafiction opens, David Pepin, a computer game programmer, devotee of Escher and Hitchcock, and would-be novelist, is wrestling with the “middle’’ of his book project and his marriage to Alice, a social worker who suffers from deep depression and wild weight swings. Shortly after David’s fantasy of killing Alice is revealed, she dies of anaphylactic shock, with a peanut lodged in her throat. Investigating her demise are Sam Sheppard, a doctor turned detective, and Ward Hastroll, Sheppard’s partner. Also in the mix: a nasty little man named Mobius who pops up whenever evil is to be perpetrated.

Ross shifts primarily between David and Sam, also introducing minor characters such as Hastroll who, like those other men, has a troubled marriage. But after Ross introduces him tantalizingly, he abandons Hastroll until the very end, suggesting he wasn’t necessary to begin with.

Sheppard, the suburban Cleveland doctor accused of murdering his wife in a sensational and timelessly ambiguous 1954 case, gets as much page time as Pepin. Ross’s treatment of Sheppard’s marriage and affairs is fascinating, his evocation of the period effective, his insights into sexual power plays dead-on. His inquiry into the Pepin marriage, a toxic blend of revulsion and desire, also is sharp, even occasionally moving.

This book focuses heavily on processes, spanning police procedure, the elements of cinema, writer’s block, diet, how to get around Kauai, and psychological calibration. It’s a mess despite its fecundity; Ross can write sexily, has an uncanny talent for physical description, and makes you want to visit Hawaii. Nevertheless, “Mr. Peanut’’ engages the intellect far more than the emotions.

The key problem is that Ross doesn’t answer the questions he so effectively poses: What makes a good marriage? How do you get over the loss of a child? How do you deal with tragedy, especially if you’re a doctor like Sheppard? How do you solve a murder mystery, or in this case, two: the murder of Marilyn Sheppard and the death — or was it murder — of Alice Pepin?

There are great scenes, like one of airplane turbulence that’ll flip your stomach, a grisly car accident involving a dog, and ravishing descriptions of Hawaiian beaches. Ross can paint memorable verbal pictures.

Still, the book lurches. Each section is so long one loses connection to the one preceding.

In fact, this novel could have been a series of different works. For instance, Ross could have turned part of it into a fantastic treatise on the process of creating fiction. Or he could have broken this one book into a few standalone novellas. The bottom line, though, is that “Mr. Peanut,’’ despite its many intriguing parts, is hard to digest as a whole.

Carlo Wolff, a freelance writer from Cleveland, can be reached at carlo.wolff@gmail.com.

MR. PEANUT

By Adam Ross

Knopf, 352 pp., $25.95