Say what you will about writers, but they have some of the best in-jokes. You’ll find plenty of them, starting with the title, in “Very Nice,” Marcy Dermansky’s breezy follow-up to 2016’s “The Red Car.”
You don’t have to be an author to appreciate the novel’s pleasures. This rapid-fire tale, which switches among five narrators, will keep readers entertained even if they don’t fully appreciate the sting of having a writing professor cross out all the “very”s and “really”s and “just”s from your stories.
Zahid Azzam is the professor, a 36-year-old Pakistani who, as summer begins, has finished a stint teaching at a New York City college. He needs a new job, but first he must return to Pakistan to visit his dying grandmother.
He asks one of his students, Rachel Klein, to watch his apricot-colored standard poodle for the summer. Before Zahid leaves, Rachel kisses him, then invites him to her room for an artful seduction.
The prose in Rachel’s opening section sets the tone for the book. Dermansky’s characters speak in short sentences — “His lips were soft. He tasted like coffee. The coffee I had made for him” — which, depending upon your perspective, is either an homage or a critique of minimalist writing.
After Zahid leaves for Pakistan, Rachel returns to her Connecticut childhood home. Her father, Jonathan, an investment banker, has left Becca, her mother, for an airline pilot named Mandy. That’s two bruising losses for Becca, a third-grade teacher, whose beloved dog Posey, also a standard poodle, has recently died.
Soon, Zahid returns from Pakistan and shows up at Becca’s to reclaim his dog. He ends up claiming more: an extended stint in Connecticut, where Becca falls for him and Rachel doesn’t understand why he rejects her overtures.
Many more characters populate the book, from identical twins Khloe and Kristi, the former a lesbian who works at Jonathan’s bank, the latter Zahid’s former lover; to the Thorntons, a Republican family whose troubled son Theo, a former student of Becca’s, once entered her classroom with a gun, only for Becca to talk him down.
With an impressively light touch, Dermansky pokes considerable fun at the literary world, from authors who are asked their opinion on the best bath products for writers to the unspoken suggestion that the wealthy are freer to pursue a career in the arts than those of lesser means.
The novel builds to a conclusion that may be too broad for some readers. But it’s hard not to smile at a novel in which a writing professor refers to a dying friend and adds, “If a student wrote that line in a short story, I would cross it out.” Very amusing, really.
Michael Magras is a freelance book critic. His work has appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Newsday and BookPage.
By: Marcy Dermansky.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 290 pages, $25.95.