Books: Redemption as an option

Tuesday, September 4, 2012 at 12:15am
By Melinda Baker

Unlike the postmodern structure of Adam Ross’ nationally lauded debut novel, Mr. Peanut, the seven stories in his collection, Ladies and Gentlemen, unfold in a more traditional, Chekhovian form. Narratives are embedded within narratives, yes, but the plotlines are linear and smoothly paced, and the epiphanic endings stay with you for days.

These stories are both fearlessly bleak and unexpectedly inspiring. Although their seamless structure and elegant prose make them easy to devour, they are not what you would call easy reads. As in Mr. Peanut, Ross exposes the unsightly side of his characters, the blind egotism, spite and brutality that human beings are capable of. The epigraph from George Eliot sets the tone before the first story opens: “Cruelty, like every other vice, requires no motive outside of itself; it only requires opportunity.” When the protagonists in Ladies and Gentlemen aren’t deliberately malicious, they’re often unintentionally cruel, the result of being unable to think beyond their own desires. Nevertheless, these are deeply familiar characters, sympathetic and captivating even at their worst. Imagine looking into the mirror on your worst day — really looking.

What makes the stories worth reading again and again are the opportunities for redemption glinting within them. For Ross, redemption is as much an option as cruelty; we just have to choose it.

What about Ross himself? In lieu of a standard Q&A, we recently sent him some half-finished sentences to complete. He reveals something about his writing habits, his love of early-‘90s hip-hop, his penchant for cooking, and his plans to take his fiction into uncharted territory and write a story with a happy ending.

I wake up in the morning and … I start writing, either at 4a.m., if night guy’s been disciplined, or after the kids are off to school. A three-hour session. Then I press the reset button.

My favorite place to write is … my study. It’s a bright, airy space above our garage, with three dormers looking out over our yard, a wall of built-in bookshelves, and cork flooring. In short, it’s the room I’ve dreamed of having all my life.

My favorite literary heroes are … Odysseus, Paul Atreides, Humbert Humbert, Marlowe, Mercutio, The Judge, Milton’s Satan, Augie March, Nathan Zuckerman, Shakespeare’s Juliet, Scout Finch, Lyra Belacqua, just about every woman in Alice Munro’s work, Binx Bolling, Cornelius Suttree.

My favorite literary villains are … The Judge, Milton’s Satan, Macbeth, Baron Harkonnen, Kurtz, Humbert Humbert.

My real-life heroes are … my wife, my mother, my father, my grandmother, my grandfather, and Rafael Nadal.

My real-life villains are … anyone on the political left or right unwilling to realistically address 1) climate change 2) our need for a world-class public education system 3) equal rights for women and gays 4) the shrinking middle class and 5) tax reform.

My daughters think I … need to write a children’s book. Mr. Peanut gave them nightmares.

Mrs. Peanut says I should … finish.

I secretly wish … I’d served in the military when I graduated college. My ancestor, Sylvanus Thayer, was the “Father of West Point”; my grandfather was a rear admiral; my uncle a lieutenant colonel; my cousin Richard a naval flight instructor; my father served in the Navy.

When I was a child, I loved … comic books with such a passion that I read them into a state of frayed worthlessness. I had all of John Byrne’s Uncanny X-Men, Bill Sienkiewicz’s The New Mutants, not to mention Walt Simonson’s Thor as well as Frank Miller’s Ronin and The Dark Knight. You see what a geek I am?

Things that keep me up at night are … whatever I’m working on.

Things that put me to sleep are … whatever I’m working on.

A book that made me want to be a writer is … Frank Herbert’s Dune was the first book that completely took over my mind, but James Salter’s Light Years (which I read this January and can’t recommend highly enough) reconfirmed me in my vocation.

My favorite meal to cook is … a tough question. I’m the family’s principal chef. But I’ll go with roast chicken. I like to butterfly it and then serve it over jasmine rice or couscous.

Writing is harder than … not writing.

Besides writing, I’m very good at … collegiate wrestling. But unlike writing, there’s just no money in it.

I am not good at … quitting.

The best movie I’ve seen recently is … I have two daughters, 6 and 5, and I know I speak for numerous other parents when I say that I haven’t seen a movie in forever.

If you scroll through my iPod, you will find … Kings of Leon, Wilco, A Tribe Called Quest, KMD, Talking Heads, Rodney Crowell, The Beatles, Beck, Miles Davis, all of Beethoven’s symphonies and late piano concertos.

Political campaign ads make me want to … move to Papua, New Guinea.

If on death row, I’d want my last meal to be … anything my editor’s wife, Diana Fisketjon, wants to cook me.

In the near future, I plan to … write a novel with a happy ending.

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