The highly peculiar Cheryl Glickman narrates "The First Bad Man," a darkly comic, frustrating and uneven first novel by Miranda July, who's also a filmmaker and performance artist.
Cheryl is a misfit, a socially inept, well-meaning, often inappropriate single Californian in her early 40s with a "potatoey" nose, gray hair and mental-health issues. She has a job at Open Palm, a nonprofit center offering women self-defense instruction and various other empowerment strategies, but she mostly works from home, since her bosses find her "managerial style more effective from a distance."
For years, Cheryl has had a secret crush on Phillip, 65, who sits on the Open Palm board. When he finally acknowledges Cheryl's existence, it is only so he can creepily seek her permission to have sex with a teenage girl.
In the movie of this weird dramedy, surely Todd Solondz or Harmony Korine would direct, and Cheryl would be played by Kristen Wiig.
Cheryl is a giver to the point of being a total doormat. She lets her vacuous, loathsome bosses, a married couple, foist their hostile, sullen 20-year-old daughter, Clee, off on her. As roommates, Clee and Cheryl initiate some bizarre fight club scenarios, which draws them closer. Clee ends up pregnant.
No one besides Cheryl is around to help Clee with her pregnancy and childbirth, and the two fall in love in a romance that oscillates narrowly between tender, inexplicable and icky.
Cheryl seeks counseling, but finds only more wackiness at a therapist's office. Scenes at Clee's birthing class and a hospital's maternity wing are surprisingly standard-issue. After a lengthy absence, Phillip re-enters for a tacked-on ending.
While "The First Bad Man" has pointed satire and flashes of pathos that may appeal to a narrow bandwidth of July fans, it's hard to imagine anyone warming up to a middle section peppered with Cheryl's graphic masturbatory musings that mash up her and Clee and Phillip in an unsavory stew that can best be described as porno-Tourette's.
These pages seem dropped in from another notebook that one wishes July had abandoned. What are we to make of it? Transgressive? Scorchingly honest? Boldly post-feminist? Cloying, self-conscious, clumsy and off-putting? Let's go with the latter.
One misses here the hyper-quirky and distinctive charms of July's 2007 story collection, "No one belongs here more than you." In that collection, a woman teaches three elderly people to swim in the kitchen of her apartment. A woman's uncle died "from holding his breath too long in a Hold-Your Breath contest." A young woman writes the same word 7,000 times.
July's short-fiction characters viewed idiosyncrasy as an extreme sport.
In Cheryl, July has created a memorable character, someone who discovers something redemptive about herself as a hardworking foster mom after a lifetime of mental illness and being overlooked, unloved and beaten. Trouble is, by the time this sort-of uplift arrives, it's too little too late.
Claude Peck is an arts editor at the Star Tribune. On Twitter: @claudepeck