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Husband in a coma, I know, I know -- it's serious
on May 6, 2012
Attenberg's first novel makes a sharp right turn between each of its three parts. The book opens with Jarvis Miller enduring life as a "half-widow," her husband on life support for all of six years, his fame (and value) as a painter increasing with every coma-induced minute. Then, unexpectedly, a long-disguised secret is revealed in a second storyline that is vaguely reminiscent of Penelope Lively's "The Photograph" (although it should be said immediately that Attenberg's characters have more, well, character, and "The Kept Man" is the better novel for it). The plot veers yet again, as the drama draws further inspiration from yesterday's headlines--particularly, and most obviously, the Terri Schiavo story.
For most of the book, what could have been a maudlin Lifetime TV movie instead resembles a sharp-witted indie feature film (I can easily imagine Parker Posey in the lead role). Attenberg ramps things up with a gram or two of the diluted "Diet Coke" you might find in the backroom of a seedy Brooklyn bar, and the author's offbeat, modish humor straddles an uneasy balance between irreverent and compassionate. "I was never the party guest they anticipated . . . because my husband was in a coma. My antics were not even interesting in a performance-art kind of way, no Courtney Love hugging the punk hippies around the candle-strewn memorials, and then a year later bouncing back to flash her designer-clad augmented breasts at anyone who would look." Even the droll melancholy of Jarvis's moods evokes the Williamsburg faux-hipster scene.
Yet, for all its scenester cred, "The Kept Man" stays true to its central concern: the impossible choices presented to its heroine. "The kids, the almost-adults, who own these streets in their carefully chosen ensembles," along with the "art shows and moving sales and drunken parties," are indeed "ephemera, all of it"; once Jarvis draws back the curtain, she finds "family" in all its many messy, unpredictable, and spontaneous variety. And that family takes unexpected forms: the three stay-at-home husbands who befriend her at the local laundromat and who, one by one, unveil their own family tensions; the livery driver who takes Jarvis weekly to the nursing home; the friends and colleagues and even the fundamentalist Christian family of her partly departed husband who alternately dismay and sustain her.
The third section manages to avoid the sandtraps of sentiment one might anticipate from a book about a husband in a coma--until the end, when Lifetime seems to have picked up the film from the cash-strapped indie director and insisted on a feel-good ending. The jaded streets of Williamsburg are traded in for the sunny skies of Hollywood. The climax strains belief, the epilogue ties up everything a little too neatly and idealistically, and Jarvis's extended "family" suddenly behaves how we all wish we would conduct ourselves after a particularly nasty scuffle. Given the cynicism and stoicism of Attenberg's prose up to this point, the final pages of this otherwise gritty and absorbing novel seem as out of place as the neighborhood's new high-rise buildings.