Reviewed by Matt Simmons
Perhaps no trope is as evocative of southern writing as the “sense of place,” a concept that can be both incredibly limiting and powerfully productive in how we read about and respond to the American South. On the one hand, this trope may force us to read in search of southern “distinctiveness,” and may create in writers a sensed obligation to provide it, even if it means the overall aesthetic detriment of their work. But on the other hand, a keen awareness of place can provide us with some of the most sophisticated and nuanced ways of exploring the human experience in a particular time, setting, and context. In a fresh way totally relevant to us in early 2014, Drew Perry does that kind of good work with the “sense of place” in his fine new novel, Kids These Days.
Kids is a novel of a place for our age: post-housing-bubble, post-suburban Florida. Walter and Alice Ingram, recently pregnant with their first child, well past youth and well on the way to middle age, suddenly find themselves needing to start over. Though Perry never mentions the 2008 economic debacle by name, the burst of the housing bubble seems to have cost Walter his job as a mid-level mortgage broker at a bank in Charlotte.
With a baby on the way and unable to find work and afford their conventional, all-American suburban life anymore, Walter and Alice pick up and move to an unnamed town in northeastern Florida, somewhere between Jacksonville and St. Augustine. A deceased aunt left her beach front condo to them, and Alice’s sister Carolyn, her husband Francis “Mid” Middleton and their four daughters live in the same town. Mid, ostensibly a small-time serial entrepreneur with his hands in multiple ventures, promises Walter work, and the Ingrams make the move south, in pursuit of that most American of dreams—the chance to start over.
But as soon as they arrive in Florida, Walter and Alice become aware of just how difficult starting over can be. Mid and Carolyn live in a new development, much like the kind of neighborhood the Ingrams would have found in sprawling, suburban Charlotte. Yet, the Middletons’ is the only home in the development. Mid is certain that with the building of a new high school—something he suspiciously “knows” is going to happen—houses will go up and property values will skyrocket. This is not the only bit of strangeness Mid presents to the Ingrams. He has also, through ambiguous means, acquired a neon-yellow Camaro for his 15-year-old daughter Olivia, who calls herself Delton. Further, the job he offers Walter seems to be little more than driving around and doing nothing, for which Walter is paid in envelopes full of large amounts of cash. Walter’s new employer, his brother-in-law, seems to have built his empire on graft just as much as did his old employer, big banking.
Dealing with a huckster brother-in-law as a boss is the least of Walter’s problems. As Alice’s pregnancy moves forward, the tensions between her and Walter escalate. Her age presents myriad possible complications, and she inevitably worries over the health of her baby. Walter, for his part, is overwhelmed by a melancholy anxiety concerning his impending fatherhood—does he want to be a father? is he ready for how this child will change his life? is he even capable of being a good father?—and Mid’s frustrating experiences with his own daughters does little to give Walter comfort. The Ingramses’ private domestic drama and Walter’s personal anguish play out against and alongside the darkly humorous misadventure produced by Mid’s shady business dealings.
Figuring out what Mid’s “work” is forms the main thrust of the plot, and this investigation introduces us to a series of bizarre and strikingly funny characters. These individuals are exactly the kinds of people we expect to find in the Florida Perry presents to us in such vivid detail: twenty-something stoner burnouts, surly fishermen, insane costumed pirates, Delton’s way-too-old-for-her, deaf-education-major boyfriend, and perhaps most significantly, a retiree who somehow flies over the beach with a POW-MIA parachute, whom Walter sees as an oracle. These characters flesh out a robust and beautiful Florida landscape, and people an entertaining, and very emotionally satisfying, story.
In a lot of ways, Perry’s novel can be read as perhaps the strongest statement yet about the new middle-American “normal.” Sat alongside Tim McLaurin’s woefully under-read 1989 novel, Woodrow’s Trumpet, Kids These Days bookends the experience of suburban sprawl in the changing South of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. But Perry does even more than that with Kids. In a novel that is always serious without ever seeming austere, that is incredibly funny without ever once making me laugh, Perry explores the odd tensions at play in each of our everyday lives. He examines what it means to suddenly become aware of one’s duty to others, and how even this seemingly appropriate impulse can be perverted into something self-serving.
This is a book full of uncertainties, and the way in which Perry plays with names and naming throughout the novel does an incredible job of looking at how we deal with uncertainty, how we attempt to create new presents and (hopefully!) new futures by changing what things are called. But he also shows us the futility of this: though Mid and his eldest daughter are moving in different directions in their lives and provide us with very different versions of how to live, they are inseparable. Mid plus Delton equals Middleton, after all.
But through his experiences of the strange, and even wacky, situations Mid and Delton force him into, melancholy, austere, serious Walter Ingram arrives at an important realization: maybe you can’t start over, maybe you can only endure in the moment. And that’s what it means to love, to do one’s duty—in other words, what it means to be a father. Moments of anxiety and black humor move Walter, and us, almost dialectically through the novel. We finally arrive at Walter coming to terms with his situation in his own unique way; Perry presents this realization through a moment of gorgeous, unpretentious, simple, everyday happiness and intimacy.
In conclusion, I say simply this: if the closing moments of this book don’t move you to look at your loved ones with a new sense of awe and wonder, then something’s wrong with you. Any book about which that sort of thing can be said is one we all ought to be reading. Drew Perry might have written the perfect novel for our times, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have read it.
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