Imagine you're in a motel, watching TV, too spiritually exhausted to reach the remote on the twin bed next to you. Condensed on the screen is one of those sitcoms about an overweight, feckless but funny white man, played by a stand-up comic, his 10 times thinner, better-looking, absurdly out-of-his-league wife, and his brother/cousin/best friend with whom he is always bantering or cooking up crazy schemes to get something he doesn't have. You sigh and settle in for the 18 billionth iteration of a 1956 sitcom called "The Honeymooners." But something's wrong: The dialogue's arresting, the characters believable, the situation more than an algorithm for generating bad one-liners. All of a sudden you're flummoxed and fascinated.
Scott Muskin's first novel is like that; same surprising shine and at its best when looking at the things that we tend to rely upon but overlook, like the table next to the motel bed: "shellacked pine ... holding a bedside lamp with a beige shade that wobbled precipitously with any small tremor ... a glass body with fake flowers in it and a rusting brass base."
This spot-on observation of American detritus is made by Muskin's narrator, Hank Meyerson, an overweight, binge-snacking beer drinker, who bursts into tears a lot when he's not making witty putdowns at the expense of disabled adults or demanding his brother's wife leave her husband to come and be his lover.
Instead, he's aggrieved, easily wounded, narcissistic and oversensitive. Despite and because of these qualities, women love him, which happens only in fiction -- but readers in real life will likewise fall hard for Hank. Look at how he sums up the difference between what one wants and what one settles for in the drawer of the same motel table: "Gideon resting atop a Domino's Pizza delivery menu -- I breathed a quick prayer that I would stoop to neither."
Like a lot of us, Meyerson reaches for the transcendent -- the poetry of Emily Dickinson, passionate love -- and is offered a Bible and snacks.
That's where the delight of Muskin's writing lies, in the lightning-quick shift from micro to macro and back again. If you went to college and loved the humanities and then suddenly found yourself stuck with a job instead of dragons and only your family for drama, you will see yourself in Muskin's book.
More important, you will also see friends and family members. As much of an attention hog as Hank is, he adroitly observes those around him. June, his forbidden love, and even his wife, the (predictably) unlovable Carol Anne, are as close to being three-dimensional as any female character can be when she's written by a male writer getting his first novel out. Which is to say, not quite, but close, very close, and Muskin tries hard and well. He's even humanized Hanks' No. 1 rival, his brother. The two are always struggling with each other, and, like the novel, it doesn't really matter who wins. The pleasure is watching them go at it. It's the same very real enjoyment found in great first novels.
Emily Carter is a writer in Minneapolis.