Understudies

understudiesThe Short Version: After a famous actress moves in down the street, a not-quite-young-anymore high school teacher starts to question the path of his life.  His mother is giving advice to strangers online, his girlfriend is pregnant, and his best friend has developed an obsession – all in all, though, it’s just life in suburbia.

The Review: I like the subtitle of “a short novel” on this book.  It sets up the right expectations while also implying that you’re going to get the full monty that comes from a novel-not-novella.  But it also shows a self-awareness from its author, Mr. Mangla: he knows exactly what he’s written and knows exactly the package to deliver it in.

There are (and will always continue to be) novels about the uncertainty of growing up.  A child, new neighbors, people who are more famous than you intersecting with your life, parents growing older, mid-life crises, etc… it’s all rather fertile, especially in a suburban setting.  But when it’s done well, it can still be a refreshing reading experience, as it is here in Mangla’s debut.

One of my favorite tricks that Mangla pulls off is that there are moments where the reader (along with the characters) asks if something is… well, not believable per se, but they just sort of express cautious confusion about something, as though they might easily be convinced that it all makes sense but they need that reassurance in order to clarify the world.  Our narrator joins a band of three youngsters (two seniors and a junior at the high school where he teaches) and, before one practice, he runs into the band-leader’s dad, who’s nursing a scotch and asks if this is all actually above-board.  And there’s a moment where you, as the reader, also sort of ask “is it… okay? for this older guy to be hanging out with these kids?”
And it’s not in a creepy way – it’s just in a “does this make sense?” kind of way.  But after the narrator assuages the father’s modest concern, the reader finds that their concerns have been assuaged too.  It’s a deft trick and one that he manages to pull off a few other times throughout the course of the short novel, keeping it fresh and retaining its power.

On the flipside, there are some moments that sort of just gloss by the reader.  The suburban angst, so well deployed in moments like those with the band, ends up being sometimes a little bit overwrought.  For example, I never really bought Chumley as a human being, let alone the reality of his odd obsession with the actress – and more importantly the way that obsession partially transfers from Chumley.  It feels just slightly more artificial than other moments.  But one of the joys of this short novel (and its even shorter structure) is that these moments flash past almost as soon as they’ve arrived – meaning the weaker bits are easily forgotten in favor of the quite lovely (and quite real) relationship between the narrator and his girlfriend.  If the whole thing, as a result, also feels a bit transitory… well, that’s the roll of the dice.

Rating: 4 out of 5.  I dig Mangla’s way with words and he’s a writer to watch, for sure.  This book reminds me a bit, the more I think about it, as a slightly less weird cousin to Patrick deWitt’s Ablutions – they both tap into a similar vein of nameless insecurity, but in an enjoyable fashion.  It’s a quick read and while you may not remember the book itself too long after reading it, I hope that you’ll remember the author.  May he have his own Sisters Brothers coming down the line (in terms of success, that is).

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