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Review of The Great Perhaps

The Great Perhaps
By Joe Meno
Norton, 2009

When Henry Casper, the patriarch of the odd, idiosyncratic family that populate Joe Meno’s fantastic and heartfelt new novel The Great Perhaps (even fantastic and heartfelt novels can have wretched titles – cf. A Modern Instance, All the King’s Men, Earthly Powers, etc.), is thirteen, in 1942, the FBI sends him and his parents and brother to an internment camp for the duration of the war. Upon their arrival, an officer tells them:

Welcome to Crystal City, Texas. This is a detainment facility for interned families of foreign nationals. You will be staying here for some time but please remember, this is not your home. This will never be your home.

The injunction might as well be a curse: the Caspers in their generations are infected with disconnection. Henry’s son Jonathan is a diffident, halting academic on a lifelong hunt to find an extinct giant squid; his perceptive, thwarted wife Madeline slowly loses her ability to overlook his preoccupations; the native intelligence of their daughters Amelia and Thisbe don’t save the girls from making one life-blunder after another. Meno has created a family singularly incapable of handling the stresses of modern life, and then he’s done his novelist’s job – he’s loaded them down with the stresses of modern life. The result is an intensely readable and memorable novel about the corrosive costs of eccentricity.

The most memorable character is easily Jonathan, the hapless squid-hunter. His dissolution is the empathic heart of The Great Perhaps, and his abstraction is the most reliable source of Meno’s sly humor:

Another secret still: Jonathan has been eating a lot of fast food lately. In the drive-through of McDonald’s, Jonathan finds himself staring up at the cloudy sky, the sky so much like the unstill sea, imagining the shape of the giant squid rising from its depths to gorge itself on a school of silver prehistoric fish. When Jonathan blinks, he realizes it is only a dark airplane floating there, drifting through the threads of the choppy clouds. He glances over at the glassy drive-through window and sees that the teenage McDonald’s employee, unnaturally overweight, with an explosion of purple zits on the dark skin of his forehead, is shouting at him.

“I’m sorry,” Jonathan says. “I was just daydreaming.”

“You’re the one with the Big Mac and the large Coke?”

“Yes.”

“It’s going to be a minute, man. One of our fryers is down today.”

“That’s okay. I was just thinking: Did you know that some giant squids spend years of their lives completely alone, only breaking their solitude once or twice every few years to mate?”

“It’s 5.38. You can pull up to the second window.”

“Of course.”

The Great Perhaps might have a dumb title, but it’s Joe Meno’s best book to date by several orders of magnitude. It’s interpersonal travails are all the more real for being drawn so exaggeratedly, and its ending is so blindingly beautiful you’ll read the last page, go outside, look up at the sky, and smile like an idiot. Fiction that can provoke such reactions is rare, but thankfully not extinct.

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