Know Your Beholder by Adam Rapp, review by Bruce Jacobs
Nothing much seems to be going on with Francis Falbo, the narrator of Adam Rapp's new novel, set in downstate Pollard, Ill., during the winter of Francis's 36th year. Former rhythm guitar player and songwriter for Third Policeman, his defunct "well-aged, anti-industry psychedelic semi-jam band with a penchant for outro pop harmonies and the occasional speedy punk vibe," Francis lives alone in the attic of his inherited Victorian childhood home converted to apartments. His beloved mother died slowly of cancer and his distant accountant father retired and moved to Florida with a bimbo 20 years his junior. After only three years of marriage, Francis's wife left him for a square-jawed New York pharma salesman. Francis isn't doing well. He sees himself as "the human equivalent of a cold rainy day... a brown puddle in the middle of a dead-end street, with maybe a Popsicle stick or two floating in my dank, dog-slobbered water." Withdrawn and agoraphobic, he lives on junk food, whiskey and pills from his home delivery drug dealer and wears worn slippers and a ratty bathrobe--rarely venturing outside during a Midwest season that begins with blizzards and ends with a devastating multi-tornado storm.
Francis intermittently writes a journal of sorts, scattered with sketches and tentatively called "Know Your Beholder," after track two of his band's only album. Rapp's Know Your Beholder is Francis's story of remorse and his search for a reason not to sit around and "drink consecutive bourbons and play Minnesota-based, mid-nineties slowcore music." He finds that reason in the oddball collection of tenants in his carved-up, remodeled house: his ex-wife's reclusive, weird brother--"handsome, athletic-looking... who, aside from hacky-sack, wiffle ball, and occasional stints skateboarding, has never played a sport in his life"; a former circus trapeze artist couple whose young daughter mysteriously disappears; an artist who paints well-endowed nude black men and surprisingly includes Francis in her portfolio ("acceptably average... the genital equivalent of Hall and Oates 'Method of Modern Love' "); an overweight, retired schoolteacher widower who discovers his calling playing Willy Loman in a local production of Death of a Salesman; and a former first alternate on the American Olympic luge team who looks "as ageless as a cardboard cylinder of Quaker Oats."
Playwright (Red Light Winter), film writer/director (Winter Passing), guitar player in the alt-rock group Less the Band, and author of several YA and adult novels (The Year of Endless Sorrows), Rapp is a renaissance man with a theatrical flair for dialogue, a talent for defining characters by their clothes and music and a relentless sense of humor. It's no surprise that a man who sketches his ex-wife's body and is obsessed with sex finds redemption in a woman. The daughter of his Willy Lomanesque tenant comes to visit, recognizes him as "an averagely handsome guy who looks slightly better while playing electric guitar," and accepts him for that. God bless understanding women and rock 'n' roll.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.