We’re All Damaged by Matthew Norman

We're All DamagedWe’re All Damaged

by Matthew Norman

Paperback, 268 pg.
Little A, 2016

Read: June 8 – 9, 2016

It’s a cruel fact that if your wife cheats on you, the guy will have a name like Tyler. Something cool–something your parents never would have had the guts to name you.

This particular Tyler is involved in Andy Carter’s wife leaving him (he’s not the cause, as Harry Burns’ buddy, Jess, would remind us, “Marriages don’t break up on account of infidelity. It’s just a symptom that something else is wrong.”). Karen uses the symptom as an excuse to dump Andy at an Applebee’s in the funniest and most tragic first chapter since Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You.

Actually, there are several similarities between this book and This Is Where I Leave You — which is not to say that Norman’s ripping Tropper off or anything (although, it’d be a good book to steal from). It deals with some similar themes in a similar tone with similar heart. A few times Norman made me think of Tropper (I bet next time that the next time I re-read Tropper’s book, I’ll think of Norman’s).

Following the Applebee’s disaster, Andy sort of fell apart, I’ll spare you the details because Norman does a much more entertaining job of relating them than I could. But long story short, he quits his nice job and moves to from Omaha to New York and becomes a bartender, and is sort of adopted by a stray cat named Jeter (as has been well established, I’m not a cat person, but I liked Andy’s relationship — for lack of a better term — with Jeter). While licking his wounds — or whatever — he pretty much cuts off communication with his family and friends. Not out of spite or anything, but it just seems to take too much energy.

For a while now, I’ve had to keep reminding myself that I’m a nice person. Like, nice nice. Midwestern nice. Half the people who signed my high school yearbook told me so–it’s documented. A few of them even mentioned that I should never change, never ever. I once helped a blind lady walk across a grocery store parking lot in the rain. I used to run 5Ks on Saturday mornings to fight cancer and juvenile diabetes and all of that horrible shit.

Time moves on, as it tends to outside of SF novels, anyway. Before he knows it, Andy’s being stood up for a blind date and he gets a call that his grandfather is about to die. A grandfather that Andy’s pretty much ignored for over a year. So Andy goes home, after promising his boss/friend that he won’t have anything to do with Karen.

Want to bet he keeps that promise? Yeah, me neither.

He doesn’t recognize his parents, the kind of house they live in, or the notoriety his mother (a conservative radio talk show host) is enjoying. His grandfather, suffering from dementia (amongst many other things), doesn’t recognize him, either. Andy is recognized by his former best-friend/ex-brother-in-law, his brother, his parents, his ex-father-in-law, a few people he’s never met. Including someone claiming to be his sister. Oh, and Tyler.

She calls herself Daisy, “smeller of books and a marker-upper of books,” and actually has a pretty good reason to calling herself his sister. But she has other plans for him — inspired by the stories his grandfather’s been telling her, Daisy has decided to fix Andy. She sports multiple tattoos, has no discernible source of income, and marks up books. Really, not the kind of person a respectable young man should be associated with — even a formerly respectable young man. But man, I really, really liked Daisy (marking up books notwithstanding), I can almost guarantee you will, too.

You’ll probably like Andy, his grandfather, father, niece and ex-friend, too. Forget about liking Tyler, just not going to happen. I’m not sure where you’ll come down on Mom. I’m not sure where I come down on mom, either.

I’m not sure you’re supposed to have a firm opinion about her, either. My one complaint with the book has to do with Mom. The novel takes place in the weeks leading up to the
Obergefell v. Hodge
decision, and since Mom’s a conservative talk show host on the verge of nationwide fame, the case is mentioned a lot. No one, on either side of the issue, deals with it in a substantive manner — it’s all sound-bites and bumperstickers. Frankly, something so important should’ve been dealt with gravitas, not in sloganeering and cartoonish representatives. Sadly, by and large that’s all that the Internet, TV and radio gave us — so that really Mom (and her vocal opponents) were realistic representations of a lot of our country. Not the best part of it, sadly, just a large part. I can’t fault Norman for focusing on them just because they were realistic just because I wish they weren’t.

So, while maybe coming out of the ruins he’s made of his life and personality, Andy mends some fences, further ruins some more, connects with his father in a way he hadn’t in a long time, and maybe even gets a little closure. He also makes a fool out of himself, gets punched, and has to attend his grandfather’s funeral. Thanks to Daisy’s pushing, he may not be living a good life — but it’s one a lot more interesting than just wallowing in the past.

At a certain point, you pretty much figure out exactly how things are going to go in the book — and you’ll be right (except for the once or twice where you’ll be really wrong). But it doesn’t matter, because things work out the way they should, and Norman works them out in a pleasant, engaging style.

I liked Andy’s ambivalent relationship to technology — the imaginary conversations he has with Siri made me grin. And then there’s his first brush in months with Facebook.

I’ve given it some thought, and, seriously, there’s just no way Facebook can be good for you. I’m sure there have been studies, so this probably isn’t some brilliant revelation, but I’ll say it anyway. On the surface, it’s harmless enough, I guess. How bad can it really be with its endless baby posts, food pictures, and beachy foot selfies? But it’s not that simple. Mixed in with all of its silly bullshit, Facebook is the literal manifestation of all our regrets, looping and looping, for free, on our computers and phones. People who should be gone and safely out of forever are there again, one cryptic little glimpse at a time, reminding us of all the things we should or shouldn’t have done.

Seriously, Norman deserves some sort of literary prize for the “literal manifestation of all our regrets” line, right?

There’s also a cameo in here that was such a nice touch.

This was a very amusing book — frequently funny. This was also a touching book — I might have gotten misty once or twice. More than anything else, this was engaging — I was right there with Andy the whole time, cringing when he was being stupid, grinning when he was being charming or mature. I enjoyed this one so much that I can’t quite figure out how to say it. Norman belongs up there with Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper, Rainbow Rowell and Jennifer Weiner — he can make you laugh, make you cry, make you feel, all while telling a pretty good story. I should go back and re-read his other novel, just to be able to prove this. But until I do, just take my word for it and give this a shot.


5 Stars

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