Friday, December 11, 2009

On Wild Boars, Backyard Bones, and the State of Modern Marriage: A Review

New World Monkeys: A Novel
By Nancy Mauro
Shaye Areheart Books (2009)

In a quality, wonderfully imagined and darkly comic debut novel, Nancy Mauro has certainly written one of the most memorable opening chapters of the year, a chapter that swings between the metaphoric rendering of an accident that reflects Lily and Duncan’s troubled marriage in the second paragraph:

            “What they won’t talk about is the way Lily’s arm shunted
             across his chest in an attempt to grab the wheel. To steer
             their destiny in the space before impact. He’ll later recall
             this moment as something stretched and precipitous over
             which he was suspended, eggbeater legs and arms akimbo.”

Creating a blackly humorous turn three pages later, Mauro stages the other unexpected result of this accident once they discover the object they had tried to miss was a wild boar (and a new source of tension for the couple):

             “…when he [Duncan] looks back at the tire iron, Lily
             herself brings it down with a batter’s crack against the
             base of the animal’s skull.”

This becomes one of the many things Lilly and Duncan don’t talk about. And the wild boar turns out to be the mascot for the Hudson River Valley town where Lily intends to retreat while she finishes her dissertation on architectural history (specifically the history of the pointed arch), an animal beloved by certain of the town’s strange citizenry. The boar even has a name: The Sovereign of the Deep Wood. The house in this strange town of Osterhagen is part of Lily’s birthright, a decaying old house as loaded with questionable familial history as it is with bad wiring and rotting floorboards. Some of that history includes the disappearance two generations ago of the family’s nanny. The plan is that Duncan will flee his pressure-ridden job as the de facto creative director of a Manhattan advertising agency for weekends of respite in pastoral Osterhagen with Lily. Action such as killing the town boar and finding human remains while gardening in the back yard begin to put a damper on Duncan’s enthusiasm for these weekends and add renewed strain to an already strained marriage. Just wait until Lily meets up with Lloyd, a self-declared peeping Tom and want-to-be pervert. Or perhaps it is the lynching proposed by some town elders and nightly cannon firing, both seemingly targeted at Lily and Duncan, that worsens Duncan’s fragile sanity.

Sound strange? You bet, but wonderfully so in its best moments. The book is one of those reads that makes you wonder sometimes while you are reading but dares you to put it down. Consistently surprising, always strangely funny, and excellently crafted, Mauro handles this dark comedy with deftness. Moreover, along the way she makes readers consider the nature of marriage and identity and offers such a scathing (while hilarious) indictment of the advertising industry that readers won’t be surprised to learn that Mauro worked in the industry prior to becoming a novelist. This element of the novel is so pointed that—once we stop looking at accident scenes and following local voyeurs—we recognize something elementally tragic in our image-driven, consumer-fixated culture. Maybe these are some of the themes we often fail to talk about.

This won’t be a book for every reader, but it will be a welcome read for those who love sarcasm and something just a little askew. Mauro certainly will be a writer we will hear more from as her career progresses.

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