Mr. Breakfast: A Novel
- By Jonathan Carroll
- Melville House
- 272 pp.
- Reviewed by Chris Rutledge
- March 1, 2023
A down-on-his-luck everyman is given a peek at the road not taken.
Mr. Breakfast is the latest from Jonathan Carroll, in which the author asks a familiar question: What would you do if you had it to do all over again? Would you learn from your mistakes or keep messing up, but in new and imaginative ways?
Protagonist Graham Patterson finds himself at a crossroads. His comedy career isn’t exactly on fire, and he lacks any real friendships or bonds. So, he does what any prideful middle-aged man at loose ends would do: He buys a bright red Mustang convertible and heads west. True, he may, in fact, be crawling to his brother for a job, but at least he has a sweet ride.
When the car breaks down in North Carolina, it seems like life is giving him one more kick. Or is it an opportunity? For here in the Tarheel State resides a mysterious tattoo artist, Anna Mae, who inks an equally mysterious tattoo onto Graham. That tattoo — the image of a bee inside a frog inside a hawk inside a lion — is more than a symbol of life’s interconnectedness. It’s a magic portal.
Once he gets the tattoo, Graham is given the chance to visit two additional lives. Two “what might have beens,” through which he can see how things would’ve played out on roads not taken. In his second life, he’s blessed with actual talent. He performs bold, risky humor — as opposed to his original schlock — and is aptly rewarded with the career he’s dreamed about. Merely by wishing for it (and by sporting an edgy new mohawk), Graham sees his dreams come true.
In his third life, he’s a loving husband, bonded to his soulmate, Ruth, in conjugal bliss. It’s true that this life gives him the company and comfort he longs for, but he can’t settle for it while still yearning for one spent making audiences laugh.
Amid these glimpses into alternative futures, Graham is able to see what will happen if he stays on his current path. He learns that it might not lead exactly where he thinks it will, but that success is out there for him somewhere. He just needs to be patient.
Central themes in Mr. Breakfast are those of interconnectedness and inevitability. Several characters, both major and (seemingly) minor, recur in each of Graham’s lives. In one instance, a footnote of a person hastens Graham’s tragic end. In another, an erstwhile antagonist comes to celebrate him in print. In still another, an otherwise cipher of a figure has a profound impact, saving the life of someone Graham loves.
Author Carroll, who’s written several works of fantasy and has good command of the otherworldly, pushes the reader to consider whether we ever actually learn from our experiences. If we were given the chance to see alternate possibilities, would we use that knowledge to make better choices in our present life? Would we become more loving and more open to relationships with others, or would we remain closed off, paralyzed by inertia?
Throughout the narrative, Graham meets other life-leapers, people who share his mystical tattoo. These characters represent, for him, further opportunities to grow. Can our protagonist learn from their mistakes and proceed more ably through his own life? Could we?
Too often, fantasy novels elevate the hocus-pocus at the expense of character development. But this is a superior fantasy novel. Here, you truly feel for Graham and even for the characters who appear to want to do him harm. The humanity of the entire cast shines through.
If there’s a weakness, it’s that the convolutedness of the plot devices occasionally takes us out of the story. It’s a little too easy to get lost in the particulars of whichever life Graham is currently inhabiting, to the detriment of the bigger picture. Also, and this is nitpicky, in the passages where Graham is meant to be a successful comedian, the jokes don’t land. You can’t imagine why this guy is such a hit. Of course, humor is in the eye of the beholder.
Again, these are nits. Mr. Breakfast is a fun read — and one that just might make you wistful for your own road not taken.
Chris Rutledge is a husband, father, writer, nonprofit professional, and community member living in Silver Spring, MD. Besides the Independent, his work has appeared in Kirkus Reviews, American Book Review, and countless intemperate Facebook posts, which will surely get him into trouble one day.