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Friday, November 3, 2017

NEW NOVEL! Daryl Gregory’s “Spoonbenders”

Author: Daryl Gregory 
Title: Spoonbenders
Genre: Literary fiction with a large dose of magic
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (6/2017)

     Teddy Telemachus is a charming con man with a gift for sleight of hand and some shady underground associates. In need of cash, he tricks his way into a classified government study about telekinesis and its possible role in intelligence gathering. There he meets Maureen McKinnon, and it’s not just her piercing blue eyes that leave Teddy forever charmed, but her mind—Maureen is a genuine psychic of immense and mysterious power. After a whirlwind courtship, they marry, have three gifted children, and become the Amazing Telemachus Family, performing astounding feats across the country. Irene is a human lie detector. Frankie can move objects with his mind. And Buddy, the youngest, can see the future. Then one night tragedy leaves the family shattered.

     Decades later, the Telemachuses are not so amazing. Irene is a single mom whose ear for truth makes it hard to hold down a job, much less hold together a relationship. Frankie’s in serious debt to his dad’s old mob associates. Buddy has completely withdrawn into himself and inexplicably begun digging a hole in the backyard. To make matters worse, the CIA has come knocking, looking to see if there’s any magic left in the Telemachus clan. And there is: Irene’s son Matty has just had his first out-of-body experience. But he hasn’t told anyone, even though his newfound talent might just be what his family needs to save themselves—if it doesn’t tear them apart in the process.

     Harnessing the imaginative powers that have made him a master storyteller, Daryl Gregory delivers a stunning, laugh-out-loud new novel about a family of gifted dreamers and the invisible forces that bind us all.

     Teddy Telemachus meets Maureen McKinnon when they take part in a classified government study about ESP in 1963. Teddy is just a con man, a charismatic cardshark with a huge heart. Maureen, however, is the real deal—a full-on psychic. Together they have three gifted children and become the Amazing Telemachus Family, performing incredible feats on national television—until a tragic event takes the magic away.

     Decades later, the Telemachus children are in disarray. Frankie who once moved objects with his mind, is in debt to the Mafia; Irene, the human lie detector, can’t trust anyone; and Buddy, who can see the future, has inexplicably dug a giant hole in the backyard. Life as they know it may be over, until Matty, Teddy’s grandson, discovers a little bit of the old Telemachus magic in himself, which might just save them and make the Telemachuses amazing once again.

     Compassionate, rollicking, and just a bit magical, Spoonbenders is a welcome reminder of the importance of family and the supernatural power of love. It’s a hilarious, tender, extraordinary novel about the invisible forces that bind us.

     In a podcast interview, Gregory explains that he used John Irving’s early novels (Hotel New Hampshire, The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany) as models. For each character, he wanted to be sure "that the emotions were all real," and to "get the heart of it right," but he also wanted the story to end like one of Shakespeare’s plays, where all of the story threads come together in the final actwith everyone milling about the stage, doors slamming, and action erupting everywhere. To get us to that point, Gregory has his main characters take turns telling the story from their separate perspectives, flashing back and forth from past to present—and even to the future (in Buddy’s chapters). The story begins in the present—June 1995—and ends on Labor Day, which may or may not be the day the world ends for one or more (or all) or the Telemachus family.

    In the first four chapters, Matty, Teddy, Irene, and Frankie introduce themselves and submerge us in their complicated lives. In July, we meet Buddy, who lives in a world in which past, present, and future time constantly swirl and mix in his mind. Buddy knows that something terrible is going to happen on Labor Day (aka Zap Day), and it’s up to him to save as many lives as possible.

     Gregory takes us inside each of the characters’ minds. Teddy struggles with the fact that he can no longer pick up a deck of cards, much less shuffle them in a way that will trick a mark into handing over his money. (The full story of Teddy’s tragic injuries to his hands is, tantalizingly, left untold until well into the story.) And then there’s Frankie, who has only a few vestiges of his former telekinetic powers and who is over his head in debt to the local mob. Irene, the human lie detector, has met a wonderful man, but she knows that he will eventually lie to her and she’ll know it immediately, so how can she make any romantic commitment to him? Fourteen-year-old Mattie, Irene’s son, is keeping a huge secret. Under certain erotic conditions, he can become an ephemeral spirit that can fly around looking down on his unconscious physical body and at anything and anyone else in the vicinity. He has no idea what’s going on and is terrified to ask any of his family members about it—mostly because he doesn't want to admit to anyone what triggers the episodes. 

     Buddy’s chapters are written in a stream-of-consciousness manner because that’s how Buddy thinks: “Buddy was in his own world, a high-gravity planet he left only with great difficulty.” The rest of the family has come to view Buddy as being on the edge of madness, but the truth is that he is living within three timelines—past, present, future—all at the same time, which would make anyone act a bit crazy.

     As each character’s story line meanders through the novel, it begins to connect with other characters’ story lines until all of the conflict is resolved during the crazy, action-filled final showdown scene that meets every expectation that Gregory had for it. By that time, the cast has expanded to include secretive, middle-aged government agents; a squad of Mafia goons; an ancient, pizza-making mob boss whose wardrobe and hair style still live in the 1970s; an attractive, run-away widow; and a gang of inquisitive kids. Add some explosives, and you’ve got yourself a finale that is definitely Shakespearean in scope. Can you think of another novel plot that hinges on a green cartoon lunch box and a plastic box containing a dead man's teeth?

     The rollicking plot, which can switch in the blink of an eye from pathos to hilarity to terror—travels along at a compelling pace, pulling the reader along from one catastrophe to the next. But what makes the book so readable is Gregory’s deep dive into the emotional effects of the psychic “gifts” (or curses) of each family member: Teddy's yearning for revenge, Irene’s bitter loneliness, Matty’s embarrassed confusion, Buddy’s surreal terror, and Frankie’s sweaty desperation.

     Gregory writes with crispness and snarky humor. Here are a few examples:  Teddy, an inveterate womanizer, explains why he picks up women in Dominick’s (a high-end grocery) rather than Jewel’s (a working-class store): “You go to the Jewel on a Tuesday afternoon…you get old women in shiny tracksuits looking for a deal, holding soup cans up to the light….In Dominick’s…it was still possible to find classy women, women who understood how to accessorize.” Later in the book, Irene has a job interview with “Amber the HR rep, a twentysomething nymph constructed entirely of freckles and positive attitude.” Irene drives a Festiva, “a car that won the award for most ironic distance between name and driving experience.”

     This novel has it all: charming, well-explored, layered characters; a quick-paced, exciting plot with just enough complexity to make it interesting, but not confusing; and a slam-bang ending that ties together all of the disparate story lines. It’s a winner that you shouldn’t miss.

     Click HERE to go to this novel’s page to read or listen to an excerpt by clicking in the clover art for print or the “Listen” icon for audio.

Daryl Gregory is the author of AfterpartyThe Devil’s Alphabet, and other novels for adults and young readers. His novella “We Are All Completely Fine” won the World Fantasy Award and the Shirley Jackson Award. He lives in Oakland, California. Click HERE to go to Gregory’s Wikipedia page for a bibliography of his works.

     Gregory also wrote the novel, Harrison Squared, which I reviewed back in 2015. The author is now working on the second and third novels in this trilogy and plans for them to hit the market in 2018. Click HERE to read my review of Harrison Squared. Here is an excerpt from that review: “Gregory is a great story teller who excels in characterization and dialogue. His well-developed cast of eccentrics lead us effortlessly though a highly entertaining, if creepy, plot. Just when you think the story can't get any stranger, it does…and then it does again. Once I started this book I couldn't stop reading, mostly because the story moves along so quickly and with so much dark humor that you just want more. The epilogue guarantees that there will be a sequel to tie up some unresolved loose ends."

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