Every Hand’s A Winner

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I’ve been a male cheerleader for Matthew Quick’s writing since the quirkily insightful and laugh-out-loud-worthy Silver Linings Playbook, which he followed up a few months back with the Young Adult novel Forgive Me Leonard Peacock (which I reviewed). Now he’s back with another novel for grown-ups, The Good Luck of Right Now. It follows his trend of an emotionally damaged main character most people would call “different” on a journey of self-discovery with a colorful cast of friends. Does it find another strange formula for meaning, or just re-hash the same old ground?

I have a soft spot for the comeback trails of protagonists who have ended up in a dark or low place and need to fight their way back to things most consider normal, like having friends, or a job, or a healthy sense of self-worth. We’ve all been down and out sometime and I have a theory that if we all remembered what it felt like to be in that low valley on a daily basis, no one would have the heart for hubris-and-cruelty-motivated-things like starting wars, bullying those who are different, voting to restrict civil rights, or becoming investment bankers.

The man in the low valley this time, whose story Good Luck tells in the first-person, is Bartholomew Neil: an intelligent but childishly naive man of almost 40 whose life was stunted from independence by living and taking care of his mother his entire life. Now Bartholomew’s mother, his only friend, has just died of cancer and it’s suddenly up to him to figure out what to do with his life as a middle-aged person who’s never hung out with a peer or worked for a living.

Well-intentioned counselors step in, including his conflicted, alcoholic priest and his young grad-student therapist who has problems of her own, but the person Bartholomew turns to the most (in letters that make up the chapters of the book) is Richard Gere: his mother’s favorite actor, admired for his Buddhism and activism, and the man she apparently thought Bartholomew was at the end when dementia took over.

Portraying non-normative minds from within is Quick’s strength, and there are touching, salient scenes that make living in a different person’s brain worthwhile. As Bartholomew and another misfit companion watch a “normal” attractive family with TV-looking blonde kids playing in a hotel pool, he wonders with heartbreaking simplicity why people like him exist, so different and “abnormal.”

It works because no matter what level of normal or attractive we are, we have all felt that way at some point – at least I assume. And if someone hasn’t, I have to think they’re worse for it – that they’ve missed out on something about being human. This is something Quick makes us feel, and he’s at his best doing it. If you can laugh at or tear down someone just for being different after reading Matthew Quick, then you’re really missing something human.

There are also quite a few laugh lines, endearing situations, wounded characters coming together, and thoughtful insights from the Dalai Lama. The thing is, though… about halfway through, you kind of realize it’s run off the rails. Things seem to be just happening, without that certain feeling of underlying cohesiveness that makes a tight story work – without the Jungian “synchronicity,” or feeling of fate and unity that Bartholomew talks so much about. Characters’ problems start to reveal themselves too conveniently, people start to make eloquent speeches that sound insincere, and plot twists you saw miles away hoping they would be subverted end up all too true, and then just kind of get ignored.

The flawed jump-the-shark feel of it doesn’t make you want to give up on Good Luck, exactly. There’s enough good ideas and endearing laughs that when you’re halfway through and see the car crash start to happen, you just smile and keep watching the car crash, I suppose. I’d call Good Luck the draft of a great novel: one that had all the ideas there somewhere and might have turned out great with another redraft of two, to rearrange the pieces and find a real focus to follow all the way through.

With that in mind, I can’t recommend rushing out to pick it up right now unless it’s going to be one of a dozen books you read this month, in which case one hit-or-miss is just a happy shrug. It’s too disorganized, too unpolished, not feeling of high enough stakes when it’s all done and said to be worth the time and money if your reading is limited. Hold off for an affordable paperback or when it’s at the library, and then maybe you’ll end up meeting a cute Girlbrarian, like Bartholomew does.

Note: No one ever pays me anything to review or link to any books.

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