Man Alive!: A Novel
- Mary Kay Zuravleff
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by C.B. Santore
- October 1, 2013
A lightning strike sends one family off its comfortable axis.
Tolstoy wrote that all happy families are alike; it’s the unhappy ones who differ in their travails. Mary Kay Zuravleff would restate that, I think: All families are alike; some parts happiness, some unhappiness. Man Alive! explores, with unfailing compassion and a measure of humor, the dynamics of the Lerner family, as its members’ cozy world is threatened by pressures from within and without, forcing them to test the idea that home “‘is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.’”
Pediatric psychopharmacologist Owen Lerner, the novel’s protagonist, and his wife Toni, a headhunter for college presidents, have created a stable core around which their college-age twin sons, Ricky and Will, and high school daughter Brooke revolve. Their orbits are fixed, if sometimes a bit wobbly, but the physics of the Lerners’ world keeps them from crashing into each other or spinning out of control.
That is until lightning, quite literally, strikes. The Lerners are heading to their favorite barbecue place on the last night of a beach holiday when Owen is hit by lightning as he puts a quarter in the parking meter. It’s an experience that, while painful, is also transforming. “It is bliss, pure bliss, and though he’s aware that he isn’t breathing, he has the scent of barbecue in his nostrils ...” Owen survives, but with an oddly humorous, post-strike fixation on all things concerning barbecue.
The strike’s effects are disorienting for Owen and his family. While meticulous in his barbecue preparations, Owen swaps his usual khakis and black blazer for bike shorts and no shirt, a look that disturbs his daughter and is symptomatic of how much he has changed. Like the shifting solar magnetic poles, Owen’s reorientation from conscientious to lackadaisical sends ripples into the cosmos, causing disturbances in the previously well-ordered world of the Lerner family. The bills are piling up, and the boys’ college tuitions need paying, but Owen wants to quit his practice and open a treatment center using barbecuing as therapy. Undercurrents of past infidelities rise to the surface. The children begin to spin out of control.
The electrifying effect of the lightning strike illuminates the rivalries, jealousy and hurt, previously hidden, that lurk alongside filial support, devotion and healing. Zuravleff is at her best here, exposing life’s inherent dichotomies. In a recent interview, she said that “on any given day, life is tragic and outrageous; heartbreaking and boring; poignant and banal,” and the Lerners are no exception. Zuravleff’s characters are Janus-faced, but she doesn’t blame them. She embraces them. She accepts the flaws, because flaws are organic to life, and she cheers the absurd because that makes life fun.
Zuravleff was nominated for the Orange Prize, now called the Women’s Prize for Fiction, in 1997 for her first novel, The Frequency of Souls. She keeps good company: Other notable nominees that year were Margaret Atwood and Annie Proulx. Washington, D.C. area readers may be interested in Zuravleff for her depiction of their local environs, such as Rehoboth Beach, where the Lerners vacation, and the Maryland suburbs where they live. If you are new to Zuravleff, especially if you live in D.C. as she does, I suggest starting with her second novel, The Bowl is Already Broken, about a curator at the fictional Museum of Asian Art. In this interesting read you’ll get a glimpse of the art world behind the museum displays, informed by Zuravleff’s experience writing and editing for Smithsonian exhibitions.
As for Man Alive!, while the story is engaging, the ending is a bit of a letdown. Once involved in the Lerners’ lives, even as an outsider looking in, I wanted more than Zuravleff had to offer.
C.B. Santore is a freelance writer and editor in Fairfax, Virginia.