Shortly after the Thanksgiving dinner that opens this tale of redemption, the narrator, Harold Silver, a somewhat stuck but passionate Nixon scholar, is called to collect his brother, loathsome TV executive George, who's caused a catastrophic automobile accident, killing a mother and father and injuring a young boy, Riccardo. While George is in the hospital, Harold, long leching after his brother's wife, "comforts" her, only to be discovered by George, who bashes in his wife's head, thus setting in motion what constitutes a plot in this big, ungainly and nonetheless irresistible novel.
Harold, telling the story, is hardly a detail man. He lays things out: 1, 2, 3. And this seems to have something to do with a deficit in him, the quiet older brother of a charismatic bully who turns out to be certifiably crazy. As a result of George's crimes, Harold finds himself taking on first George's children, 13-year-old Nate and 11-year-old Ashley, then, at the children's urging, the orphaned Riccardo. Then there are the aged (and demented, but amusingly, of course) parents of a woman who seduces Harold at the A&P. And a woman he's met online for sex, the elderly owners of the Chinese restaurant he frequents, the dog minders and adult baby sitters and I don't know who else.
What's interesting about the crowd of people Harold takes on is how simply he accommodates them. Though clearly coming from a rather vacant place (there are any number of references to how "before this I was detached" and "the world out there, so new, so random and disassociated"), Harold still has a vast capacity for care; the responsibilities pile on, and they seem quite natural to him.
Meanwhile, there are numerous subplots about George's incarceration in an unlikely nature preserve where he ends up dealing arms with an Israeli; Nate's bar mitzvah in South Africa, where he's helped a village to prosper; Ashley's affair (remember, she's 11) with a headmistress, which gets her well-compensated to leave school for an internship with a puppet theater.
And then there's the whole Nixon business, with the narrator drawn by Julie Nixon Eisenhower into a project involving newly discovered short stories by the disgraced president, whom Harold characterizes as "the American man of that moment, swimming in the bitter supposition that for everyone else things came easily. He was the perfect storm of present, past and future, of integrity and deceit, or moral superiority and arrogance, of the drug that was and is the American dream, wanting more, wanting to have what someone else has, wanting to have it all."
None of it really fits together, but it makes a strange kind of sense anyway, because -- however outlandish these developments might be -- they all somehow come back to Harold's all-too-familiar need to have things matter. When he explains to his niece how we atone because "despite our best efforts, we will always do harm to others and ourselves," she starts to cry. "It's just so terrible," she says.
"Which part?" he asks.
And she says, "Being human."
And yet being human, in this book, begins to look like a good idea.
Ellen Akins is a writer in Wisconsin.