Book World: A transformative experience in ‘Man Alive!’ by Mary Kay Zuravleff

Here is a family novel that everyone in the family will either love or be bowled over by — the grouchiest adolescent jock, the most embittered husband, the most hysterical adolescent daughter, the weepiest mom. Above all, this is a family novel for smart people; the smarter you are, the better you’ll like “Man Alive!” by Washington writer Mary Kay Zuravleff.

Dr. Owen Lerner is a pioneer in the use of medication for treating children with Asperger’s syndrome and other forms of autism. He recognizes that — far from being “slow” — most of them have conscious lives that far outreach those of “neurotypical” kids. Owen is charismatic and full of enthusiasm, and he loves his family as much as he does his work. His wife, Toni, is an academic by default: She’s a headhunter for would-be college presidents. She has a healthy skepticism about the job candidates; they’re a whiny bunch, she feels; they carry 60-page résumés, but many can barely tie their shoes. Toni is the practical one, keeping close watch over their stellar kids, their house and their beach house, too — a well-deserved reward for years of hard work.

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They have twin sons who are undergraduates at different colleges. Will is a few minutes older, and the stronger of the two. Over the years, he’s let this fact go to his head, and in many ways, great and small, he’s made sure his twin, Ricky, has lived as a shadow, a sidekick.

But it’s Ricky who steps up to the plate when his father gets struck by lightning, is flung into the air and comes crashing down on the sidewalk. It’s Ricky who applies CPR while intoning “barbecue spareribs” between each breath. The good doctor escapes with his life, just barely: “Pain like at no other time in his life rips through him, simultaneous with a deep, abiding happiness that is impermeable to stab wounds or flaying or whatever the scrubs and whitecoats are doing to his swaddled body. He’s been melted down and haphazardly poured into a mold of his old self, which many are trying to patch, deburr, reanimate.” In other words, he’s a mess, but he’s still alive, and people can’t stop saying that he’s “lucky.”

The strike happens at the end of a peaceful summer of sunscreen and bikinis, which may be why a badly scorched Owen calls out the name of his son’s bodacious girlfriend, Kyra, in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. His wife, who seems to have some trust issues with her husband, immediately jumps to the conclusion that Owen and Kyra are — or have been — an item, but there’s not much she can do about it now. After his hospital stay, they return to their home in Bethesda, Md.

There’s plenty of plot here to give away, but this is a book where the journey, not the arrival matters. Will finds himself in a lousy mood that he can’t seem to shake; his position as petted firstborn has pretty much toppled. Ricky, on the other hand, starts writing better term papers and calling himself Richard. He falls in love with a toothsome teacher, and with her husband, too. Toni spends most of her time crying. They’re running short of money, but mostly her husband has become a barbecuing fool. He digs a pit in the backyard, roasting whole pigs and goats. He’s trying to recover something — his transcendent happiness, his oneness with the universe? Several subplots ensue, each one focusing on a particular family member.

What makes this book so terrific? Certainly the lofty reach of its subject matter and its cleverly delivered information about mythology, robotics, etc. But mostly, it’s Zuravleff’s masterful use of language, particularly dialogue. Each character cries out to us, demanding attention, recognition. A whole family, not just the burned, bruised Dr. Lerner, demands to be seen as human beings — alive!

See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.

On Saturday at 6 p.m., Mary Kay Zuravleff will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington. During the Fall for the Book festival, she will read with Bonnie Jo Campbell on Sept. 24, at 6 p.m., at George Mason University.

MAN ALIVE!

By Mary Kay Zuravleff

Farrar Straus Giroux.

294 pp. $25

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