Wednesday, March 23, 2016

#BOOK #REVIEW: Secondhand Smoke

"A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES meets THE CORRECTIONS in Friedmann's warm and wacky tale of family dysfunction and redemption" —Library Journal 
“The outrageous developments and swift pace make this novel hard to resist.” –Publishers Weekly 

…to just about everyone--particularly her adult children. Fortunately, poison is the very superfood of the satirist. Patty Friedmann, the reigning queen of black comedy, hits one out of the park with her family straight out of Tolstoy--unhappy in its own way, a uniquely twisted Southern way.

Meet the Baileys. Born and bred in a working class New Orleans neighborhood, Zib and Wilson think the thick cloud of cigarette smoke enveloping their mother is what probably killed their father. Certainly the toxicity of Jerusha’s dark, cynical attitudes has driven her children far from the nest. Wilson has escaped to Chicago, married a woman who hates him, converted to Judaism, and become a decorated professor of Organic Evolution. Zib, almost forty, has made it only as far as the Florida Panhandle, where she's an assistant manager at the local Winn-Dixie, doomed to fending off a sleazy boss given to late night phone calls. Only one person, obviously as isolated as she is, shows Jerusha any affection: Dustin Puglia, chubby, wise, and fearless, a ten-year-old living next door with a poisonous mother of his own.

Although Wilson and Zib have forged independent lives away from their mother—as well as each other—their father's death brings them back together for a darkly droll, yet heart-wrenching round of domestic insanity. Does it remind you of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY? Or THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS? Patty Friedmann got there first! And she’s just as funny and observant.

Who Will Like It: Fans of off-beat dark comedies like AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, family dramas with a lot more humor than THE CORRECTIONS, the incomparable CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES, and another mistress of the twisted, Flannery O’Connor. Not to mention Patty Friedmann's other books:

TOO JEWISH: THE NEXT GENERATION (formerly The Exact Image of Mother)
PICK-UP LINE (formerly Side Effects)

“Secondhand Smoke does not seek life in fancy words and clever euphemisms. It tingles because it’s raw and true … The way [Friedmann] carves a sentence gives you the sense that she’s always known how to do it.” –Critique Magazine

If you ever wondered what dysfunction looks like—meet the Baileys! This is the kind of story that I should loathe, but I could not get enough of this story nor of the crazy Baileys. Actually, they weren’t so different than many American households. The Baileys bring realism on its ass and keeps on stomping it until you have no choice but to wave the flag in defeat. I laughed so hard at this family I couldn’t stop. Jershua a/k/a Ru was a mean-spirited, delusional, ignorant bigot. She hates every race outside of her own—being white. Not only does she live in a smoke induced haze, she makes the worst racist appear righteous.

Ru is a 67-year old woman living in New Orleans with her very sick husband, Woodrow Wilson Bailey, Sr. He’s dying and driving Ru insane. She’s ready for him to die because his screaming and wailing half the night is driving her livid and she just wants her husband gone and out of his misery. Or should I say her misery. When Woodrow finally passes, she’s not sure if she’s relieved or saddened by his death that seemed to last a lifetime other than the 50 years of unwedded bliss she suffered with him. However, all was not lost since she gave Woodrow the best of both worlds—a boy, Wilson and a girl, Elizabeth, better known as Zib. Ru informs her ungrateful children of their father’s death, and neither of them seem to be totally shook up about it, except possibly Zib who was the spoiled baby girl.

Zib lives in Florida, unmarried and in a dead-end job as a manager at a Winn-Dixie store. She’s a forty-something going nowhere fast and now the only person in the whole wide world who seemed to give a damn about her is now dead. She dreaded going to New Orleans to be with her mother. When Zib learned her brother was leaving his Chicago home to be with their mother, that made her equally as mad.

Wilson is a professor and a husband with four kids. Two from his first wife and two with his current wife. Wilson teaches Organic Evolution and speaks like a scientist and book worm—in other words a nerd of the fittest! For Wilson everything has a reason. There’s nothing he can’t explain away which drives his baby sister and mother quite insane. They are left with a dilemma—what to do for their father’s funeral. The obituary had one sentence in the paper, and it was as sad as sad can be. But the Baileys weren’t ashamed for they forged ahead. Woodrow asked that his remains be cremated and when the UPS man delivered the heavy box to his widow, she all but freaked the hell out. Ru sends her kids back to their own corners of the world and advised them that since Woodrow was in the service, she wanted him to have a proper burial in Arlington, Virginia with the flag hanging over the casket and the sound of Taps playing in the distance. Wilson didn’t see what the big deal was, but they agreed to meet their mother in Arlington to pay their final respects to the man who had helped give them life. What happens at the ceremony had me laughing so hard, I cried. Those Baileys had me dying through the whole book.

After the dust settled, literally, Ru found herself back at home living next door to her daughter’s best friend since childhood, Angela. She detested the lifestyle Angela led because her biggest issue was the fact she was sleeping around with men, but not just any ole men, an African-American in particular. That nearly made Ru go bonkers alone. Factor in Angela has a 10-year old son, Dustin, who has to sit outside while his mother gets her groove on and this infuriates Ru to no end.

Wilson and Zib think their mother’s chain smoking for so many years contributed to their father’s death. Of course Ru has an answer for that so there wasn’t any wonder where Wilson learned to have an answer for everything. What surprised me is that her children didn’t become a bigot like their mother. They understood the ways of the world and all the differences with people, so when they grew up and was able to get away from their parents, they took the first thing smokin’ (no pun intended) and got as far away from their poisonous mother as they could. It was unfortunate the death of their father brought them together in ways they never thought possible. As you go through the lives of each family member, each has a sadness to them, but are quite humorous. Again, this is a story that one would think would upset anyone from the racist overtones, but I found myself quite drawn to Ru’s ignorance and felt sorry for her limited view of the world. What Ru later discovers near the end of the story is really quite justifiable, and even she would probably be shocked, if she were real.

This was an amazing story of an ordinary family, living very ordinary lives in all the dysfunction they could muster. You will be turning the pages as quickly as I had to find out what the hell those Baileys do next. There is so much humor in this story, you will be laughing out loud quite a bit. The story is definitely wickedly dark humor and if you’re not familiar with that type of humor, you may miss all the fun.

Mello & June gives Secondhand Smoke five stars and counting. Patty is an amazing author bringing to light a very touchy subject with such realism and humor. I couldn’t get enough of this family. It is so damn funny! I guarantee you will not be sorry to read this book. With the Ru’s of the world, you can’t help but to laugh because they are so pathetic. If you loved What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, get ready ‘cause you already know this family’s got issues. The Baileys make the Grapes look like normal people. Enjoy! I know I most certainly did.

Kimberly Ranee Hicks, Author/Poet/Reviewer