Brand New Human Being: A Novel
- Emily Jeanne Miller
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
- 272 pp.
- Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy
- June 22, 2012
A stay-at-home dad deals with parenthood, a crumbling marriage and his father’s recent death.
Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy
At first Emily Jeanne Miller’s debut novel Brand New Human Being looks like that classic of “chick lit,” a good beach read. Unlike most such novels, though, this one might leave you thinking about gender roles long after you put it down.
The story begins just as the death of patriarch Gus Pyle has thrown his family into flux. His widow Bennie, son Logan and daughter-in-law Julie have structured their lives around Gus’ long illness, and without him they are lost.
With an uncompleted doctorate put aside so he can be a stay-at-home dad, 36-year-old Logan now worries about his marriage. Julie is a skinny, career-driven lawyer who becomes less engaged in family life every day. Their four-year-old son Owen regresses to a baby bottle. Meanwhile Gus’ widow Bennie tries to move on with her life, having inherited most of the estate.
How is Logan, a stay-at-home dad, different from a stay-at-home mom? In Brand New Human Being, not one bit. He puts on weight even as he’s run off his feet caring for others. He finds his wife’s hat in just a few seconds, after she’s given up searching, and his observations are traditionally female ones: his wife’s thinness, the color of a Subaru, the candlelit table set with china and good silverware, the Montessori teacher’s rainbow-striped flip flops and silver toe ring. He never thinks about sex and doesn’t complain that he’s not getting laid. At one point he undresses Julie and then “wriggles out” of his own clothes, but I’ve never seen a red-blooded man wriggle out of clothes, and don’t know any heterosexual men who talk about feelings the way Logan does.
Contrast this lack of sexuality with his description of a burger and fries: “Our meals appear then, steaming in red plastic baskets and I take a moment to bask in the truly divine scent of deeply unhealthy food. Owen watches, wide-eyed, while I unwrap my burger from its red-and-white-checked paper wrapper and empty the fries out of their cardboard cone onto my plate, then do the same for him. I pick up my burger, take a bite, and say, “Delicious,” because it is."
Meanwhile, Julie enjoys a vegan diet and can’t put her cell phone or paperwork aside, even when watching their son at the pool. While brushing off Logan’s attentions, she goes on to have suspiciously personal interactions with a couple of male colleagues.
But halfway through the book, something snaps. At a party, Logan walks in on his wife with another man. He then packs up Owen and a few supplies and heads for a family cabin in the woods. Here the characters and writing come to life.
The relationship between Logan and his stepmother Bennie in the wake of Gus’ death is subtly layered. You begin to love Logan for his fumbled parenting and newfound recklessness. The food is no longer tasteless organic fare, but bacon, eggs and SpaghettiOs. There’s no TV. When the phone rings, no one is compelled to answer. It’s as though Miller relaxes into her characters and believes in their choices here, and as a result the reader believes in them, too.
Except that this is the crisis point, and Logan’s thoughts are “middle-of-the night thoughts.” During the night he gets up and goes to the refrigerator “hoping to find something stronger than water to drink, but there’s nothing.” He then fills his glass at the sink and sits down at the table, “running my thumbnail along a seam between the panels, dislodging decades of crumbs.”
Perhaps these are crumbs of comfort left over from happier years. Now that Logan had become a real character for me, I found myself wanting him to break away from his wife and the roles they had forced upon each other. If Logan’s politically correct masculinity is the brand new human being of the book, I don’t believe I am meant to like it. The real life and real writing happens when this has been shed.
Maybe Gus’ death signifies the death of traditional head-of-the-household manhood, and that kind of male role model. I only know that at his most lost, Logan becomes his most found. When he behaves badly, you rejoice. When he wakes up, shivering, in the front seat of his truck, then sits up, blinks and tries to get his bearings, you feel he’s become fully realized.
Returning to the cabin, he remembers a bottle of brandy his father kept hidden. “The stuff tastes like hell, but if memory serves it did back then, too, and the taste passes quickly, leaving intense warmth in its wake. I pour myself a second serving and slug it down. After that I stand over the oven and warm my hands. I take one more sip of brandy, a long one, straight from the bottle, and I think about all the lips that have touched that glass — lips that no longer exist.”
Miller implies that we will learn to live with the thinner, less colorful and less traditional human beings we have become. But by the end of this novel I was pining for the old- fashioned flawed people Bennie and Logan Pyle allowed themselves to be during their few lost days in the woods.
Amanda Holmes Duffy is a fiction writer and college teacher who lives in Falls Church, Virginia. Her story “Scorched” appears in the Spring 2012 issue of Our Stories. She blogs at www.irrelevanceofhope.blogspot.com