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Book Review: 'Apologize, Apologize!' by Elizabeth Kelly

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By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 25, 2009


By Elizabeth Kelly

This Story

Twelve. 324 pp. $23.99

To catch the spirit of Elizabeth Kelly's first novel, you've got to scream the title in hysterical fury: "Apologize, Apologize!" The subject of all that chiding is long-suffering Collie Flanagan, the only sane member of a wealthy family of alcoholics, Marxists, playboys, media barons and pigeon racers. As described in Kelly's deliciously witty prose, these are people you can't imagine living with, but can't resist reading about.

The author is a Canadian journalist with an acute sense of absurdity and the arch style of a modern-day Kinsley Amis. If her novel as a whole is somewhat lumpy and poorly paced, its parts are splendid. The first half of the story takes us through a series of eyebrow-raising incidents in the zany Flanagan home -- "a paean to the cult of narcissism." The family lives on Martha's Vineyard with a raucous collection of dogs "in a house as big and loud as a parade," Collie says. "The clamor resonated along the entire New England coastline." Ploddingly normal and responsible, the teenaged Collie toils away like Marilyn Munster among creatures of monstrous self-absorption. "The most outrageous thing I ever did as a kid," he says, "was drink Pepsi before ten o'clock in the morning."

Much of the comedy of this first half revolves around Collie's wistful memories of his exasperating family members, one more outrageous than the next. "Sometimes," he says, "I think my real life's purpose is to refute the cliché notion that you can't actually die of embarrassment." His grandfather is a wicked old newspaper baron who reluctantly supports the family with an allowance that frees them all from the tedium of working. Collie's unstable mother "collected Commies the way other women accumulate Tupperware," while his philandering father is always finishing a drink or starting a new one. ("You could have gotten drunk on the fumes from his coffee.") His Uncle Tom, referred to as their "maiden uncle," hangs around the house serving as their belligerent cook and housekeeper. ("I'd call him the resident lunatic," Collie says, "but he faced stiff competition for the title.") But the most endearing character of all is his younger, cuter brother, Bingo, who charms the pants off everyone (sometimes literally and often with disastrous results).

The central joke of this section, which Kelly manages brilliantly, is that all the ne'er-do-wells in the family can agree on only one thing: Collie is a terrible disappointment. His uncle harps on him relentlessly for being a snob, and his father is always encouraging him to relax. "If I had your situation," he tells his hardworking son, "I'd live like a lawn chair." The harshest words, though, come from his mother, whose criticism sometimes drifts toward actual hatred. "You don't have any real friends," she shrieks at him one day. "They're all a bunch of vacuous social climbers, and you're the worst of the lot. Just once I'd like you to express a single unconventional thought. I'm surprised you weren't born wearing a tie." She favors her wild younger son in the most shockingly conspicuous ways. The situation seems ripe for a Cain-and-Abel rivalry, but Kelly moves in the opposite direction; Collie loves his irresponsible little brother and saves him again and again from all the dangers he courts.

But halfway through "Apologize, Apologize!" the darker themes running beneath this comedy suddenly break through. In the wake of a tragedy Collie witnesses but could not have forestalled, his family's hilarious criticism suddenly seems caustic and cruel. Although the novel never entirely loses its comic tone, it becomes a far more contemplative, even plaintive, story of a young man struggling to redeem himself, to keep from being "some useless rich kid who everyone thinks is a coward."

This more serious section sometimes has trouble maintaining its momentum, as the plot sputters through some fairly contrived and too abbreviated developments. Collie admits, "I didn't know how to make things funny anymore," and for a long stretch his creator doesn't seem to, either. Her rueful narrator thrashes around, trying on one redemptive profession after another -- social worker, foreign aid worker, doctor -- but even his best efforts offer no relief from his "inadequacies pulsing like stigmata," a typically garish articulation of his grief. There's enough maudlin whining in this second half that readers drawn in by the novel's sharp comedy might justifiably object to the switcheroo.

But toward the end, the story rights itself and returns to Collie's endearing, exasperating family. Fortunately, that's enough to carry the rest of the story toward a gentle, thoughtful conclusion that offers a degree of redemption to this long-suffering young man. And the same holds true for this ultimately worthwhile novel; it's good enough to overcome its flaws and witty enough to make us want more from Kelly.

Follow Charles on Twitter.

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