Saturday, March 26, 2016

Nell Zink's MISLAID & Phaedra Patrick's THE CURIOUS CHARMS OF ARTHUR PEPPER, Happy endings from estranged beginnings

Zaniness and wisdom in farcical settings are in short supply in new fiction, especially where they are employed to create a fun and meaningful experience for readers. THE CURIOUS CHARMS OF ARTHUR PEPPER (MIRA/Harlequin) and MISLAID (Harper Collins) fill this eccentric category. Both novels hearken back to classics. Phaedra Patrick's ARTHUR PEPPER, like Alice, enters a wonderland of strange adventures linked to enigmatic objects and seemingly crazy characters, though a wonder of his land is that it's been hidden for decades behind his daily life.

Nell Zinc's MISLAID seems a descendant of Mark Twain's The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, a send-up of class and race in a southern town, where two babies  (like his earlier The Prince and the Pauper) are switched at birth. Zinc's mad-cap novel, also a political send-up of race and class in the south, differs most in that it's driven by gender ambiguity. In Twain, gender hasn't a starring role. In both novels the white children are accepted as black, despite the obvious physical facts. (In Zinc's hilarious book, the white child has platinum hair and almost albino skin,) The black child is also largely unquestioned in Twain's white world, where he is educated to fulfill career expectations. Zinc mirrors this with an African-American auto-didact who is accepted by white academia, because he fulfills their notions of intellectual potential.

An interesting aside to Pudd'nhead is that the "switched at birth" situation is discovered through
a finger. Palmistry was a hobby of Twain's. He took hand prints of babies in his town on glass slides and followed them up to see how the lines changed with age. In Pudd'n head, palmistry and the idea of race as destiny, figures in his denouement.

Nell Zinc's characters, who are more propelled by gender, have to straddle the hurdles of class and race for personal safety. Both black and white communities think being "queer" is aberrant, though a fact of Peggy's life. From early adolescence, she figures out she likes girls, though she enjoys being an uber-girl in her cotillion gown. And in her small town, a backwater from major cities, when Peggy plans to attend the local college, she discards her mother's notion that she needs a name university to marry well. Ironically, she's seduced by local royalty, a famous gay poet employed by the college because of his connections. Lee's attracted to young Peggy, who resembles the hipless boys he loves. When she gets pregnant, he marries the "baby dyke" (as Peggy calls her younger self) and they have two children.

Not cut out for domesticity, which means besides the kids, acting as house servant for Lee's flagrant poet lifestyle and enduring sexual rejection, When Peggy flips out with a "cry for help, " Lee threatens to have her committed so she flees with her daughter from backwater prominence to back road anonymity. Finding an abandoned shack and names off gravestones, she passes as a light-skinned African American single mother with a platinum haired, fair skinned daughter. She avoids questions by buying their clothes from thrift stores, working as a scavenger and later with a hapless drug dealer. Meanwhile, Lee is unable to trace Peggy and must deal with their entitled son.

Though scarred by Peggy's abandonment, he enjoys the fickle tastes and prejudices of a privileged college boy. His younger sister, raised as a poor African American, is street smart with uncompromising ethics.The farce that ensues, when she and her African American auto-didact boyfriend unknowingly meet her brother at a Halloween frat party is hilarious. A day in court climaxes with an impromptu family reunion. Pretensions and hypocrisy of both Black and White cultures fall equally on Zinc's satiric chopping block.

Zinc has a brittle optimism that all will work out and somehow it does. Peggy's daughter is independent, clever and wise beyond her age, while Lee's parenting makes their son an upper crust boy with an unaffordable social conscience. Like Twain's two boys switched at birth, the destiny of Zinc's siblings has more to do with their ostensible places in the world than character. But in a final twist, she plays the trump card of genetics. This is a very funny, sly novel.

Arthur Pepper's rabbit hole is the brown suede boots of his deceased wife . When he looks down them and discovers an unknown jewelry box, his life will never be the same. Widower Pepper has hidden in his apartment, still emotionally disconnected a year after his wife's death. He's lost himself in grief, the disruption of predictable habits. Hers echoed his own so how could he have had no inkling of this shiny bracelet, not her kind of thing at all--and the intriguing charms dangling from it?

They become clues to his wife's secret life before marriage. Each charm sends him on an adventure that challenges his assumptions about his wife and his notions of life. As the novel begins, Pepper's a 69 year old British pensioneer, a retired locksmith,who scarcely leaves his house. Besides his distant daugher, Lucy, visitors are few, except a neighborhood do-gooder, who leaves savory pastries on his step.

Only when Lucy tells him it's time to clear out his wife's things, does he stir himsel. Unexpectedly, he's fascinated by the charm bracelet. Pepper examines a gold elephant with a glittering green eye and finds a phone number in India. He can't resist the call and is shocked to learn his homebody wife was once a nanny in India--still beloved by the man who was once her charge.

Pepper pursues the other charms and discovers a mysterious and exciting woman, he never knew. His wife was mixed up with exotic tigers, lords with harems, a famous poet, artists, French couture and other wonderlands. Searching her out, Pepper starts to find himself. Like Alice in the room with the key, who is first too big, then too small, he has to change to enter his wife's world.

He becomes a risk-taker, an adventurer with the courage to face the unknown. Whether robbed in the Tube, facing down tigers, sheltering with a street musician, or encountering a night of Parisian romance, Pepper follows his quest. Alice drank her tea with the mad hatter amid broken clocks, Arthur Pepper embraces disconcerting unpredictable life and surprising people behind the mundane illusion of daily life. Revelation engages him.

This sweet U.K. novel of life's possibility, at any age, is much the anecdote to the ageism so prevalent in U.S. culture. Arthur Pepper, like Alice, returns to his everyday world, where everything is changed and the same. It's a happy ending with a new beginning. Novels like these two make us think about discovery and self-knowledge, no matter how tumultuous our times.