In “Almost Everything Very Fast,” his novel about a young man who’s searching for his mother and preparing for his father’s death, German author Christopher Kloeble gives us a likable protagonist and a cleverly structured narrative. The story moves forward via a series of lengthy flashbacks, as what initially seems like a modest family saga set in 2002 expands to include large swaths of 20th-century European history.
This is Kloeble’s third book but his first translated for an American audience. His English-language debut (translated from the German by Aaron Kerner) is consistently well written, and it vividly evokes a place — Bavaria’s “alpine uplands” — that many of us have never visited. From time to time, it’s also pretty droll (remarking on a wealthy teen’s self-righteousness streak, he notes that it’s painless “to protest and do the right thing when one’s parents paid for the train ticket to the demonstration”).
On many occasions, however, this novel proves to be quite schmaltzy. Kloeble is relentless in his pursuit of heart-rending moments, and readers who dislike heightened sentimentality will find reason to grumble. Others, though, are likely to be deeply moved by Kloeble’s unashamed tear-jerker.
Albert Driajes is the novel’s lead character. He was raised by nuns at the St. Helena orphanage, and now that he’s embarked on adulthood — he’s 19 — Albert wants to resolve some basic questions about his past. Who is his mother? And why did she give him up for adoption?
Unfortunately, his only living relative is unable to provide any answers. Fred, a man with serious learning disabilities, is said to be his father, but he’s not forthcoming with any information. Worse, Fred, who’s in his 60s, is terminally ill; he’ll be dead in a few months, doctors say.
And so Albert embarks on a two-pronged mission: He’ll spend as much time as possible with Fred, and he’ll solve the mystery of his mother’s identity. This will involve an eventful road trip, and a series of fateful flashbacks.
The novel’s infrastructure is sound, but some of Kloeble’s storytelling choices are debatable. In what might be considered an act of narrative bad faith, he spends 300 pages assuring the reader that a very particular, very sad event is in the offing — and then, in the book’s final pages, changes course in a way that feels false and manipulative. These are the actions of a writer who wants to have it both ways, encouraging us to shed tears of sorrow because something tragic is about to happen — and tears of joy when it doesn’t.
Kloeble’s depiction of Fred, meanwhile, calls to mind the less admirable qualities of “Rain Man” and “Forrest Gump.” Fred is not a realistic character who happens to have special needs, but a saintly font of sappy wisdom.
“Everyone always says going dead is bad,” he says in a characteristic bit of guilelessness. “I don’t believe it. I’m sure it’s completely different. I bet it’s great. Like a huge surprise.”
“Almost Everything Very Fast” is the kind of novel that might start a small but feisty debate in the world of literary fiction. What’s the difference between mawkishness and a well-earned emotional payoff? Does Kloeble skillfully straddle the line? Or does he obliterate it in his unyielding quest to deliver one poignant moment after another?
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York City.