The opening monologue is an ill-tempered attack on romantic love. The author is even cynical about the apparent attachment between a human and the pet dog. The momentary discomfort of having a narrator before one has any characters or a plot is soon overcome as the narrator, Plato G. Fussell, relates his history.
Reviewed by Bob Williams
Millard Fillmore, Mon Amour
by John Blumenthal
St. Martin’s Press 2004, ISBN 0-312-32368-9, $12.95, 309 pages
John Blumenthal, although a relatively new novelist, is an experienced writer and presents another deft comedy of characters who are not feeling very well, thank you, but manage not only to survive but in curious ways to thrive.
The opening monologue is an ill-tempered attack on romantic love. The author is even cynical about the apparent attachment between a human and the pet dog. The momentary discomfort of having a narrator before one has any characters or a plot is soon overcome as the narrator, Plato G. Fussell, relates his history. An unattractive and ungainly boy cursed with a stupid first name, he withers under the derision of his classmates. His parents, very weird themselves, are no help to Plato. It is not then surprising that, although he is now a handsome and wealthy young man, one of the main characters in this book is Dr. Alfonso Wang, Plato’s psychoanalyst.
In the dim background of Plato’s more recent misfortunes is his marriage to Daisy Crane. She was the girl to whom he was always strongly attracted throughout his early school days. The marriage of an ex-Superdork and a former prom queen was fragile to begin with and quickly breaks under the strain of Daisy’s alcoholism and Plato’s pattern of compulsive obsessive behavior.
At a picnic given by the unconventional Dr. Wang for his patients, Plato meets Emily, a beautiful young woman for whom Plato forms an immediate bond since she has many of the same neuroses that he has. But he goes beyond her in his surface symptoms. These include, when he is nervous or excited, reversal of words and spoonerisms. The rapport is immediate but they do not consummate their relationship until they have exchanged medical records, fear of disease a strong trait in both of them.
In Blumenthal’s earlier novel, What’s Wrong with Dorfman?, he explored the comic possibilities of real hypochondria or – an even richer concept – imaginary hypochondria. Without moving a great distance from Dorfman country, Blumenthal has uncovered a rich vein among the obsessive compulsives that populate this novel. Illness, physical or mental, is a longstanding metaphor for many levels of the human condition. Mann and Kafka found illness to be a fruit worth picking. So does Blumenthal but his trip to the tree is free of angst.
Plato discovers that Emily is not single as she told him at their first meeting but married and that she is married to Dr. Wang. Since Dr. Wang is his best friend, his only other friend being a dusty vendor of old books and rare documents, Plato is torn between lust and loyalty with lust in a strong lead. He relies on Dr. Wang’s advice on how to seduce Emily. He can give this advice because he does not know that Emily is involved. He knows Plato’s lover only as Ahab, a name that Plato picked out of the air.
The rest of the Fussell family consists of a quarrelsome mother whose sole satisfaction is bickering and whose only concern is the condition of her bowels and of a bland father. We see him as the provider of bad or at least inconsistent or meaningless advice to his son. He grows ill and begins a flirtation with the nurse who cares for him. He has a second heart attack and dies. While Plato deals with the impact of this for his dysfunctional mother, Emily drifts away from him and back to her husband.
Plato spends his time getting her back, again using the advice of his analyst, and reeling from the transformation in his mother who begins to philander and drink and dance with a younger man. Plato’s first wife calls to condole with him on the death of his father and tells him that she has reformed and now spends her life in worthwhile activities. He responds with bitter sarcasm.
The truth about his father turns Plato’s life around in ways that show great ingenuity on Blumenthal’s part and it would be unkind to betray the details of the book’s conclusion. The conclusion is not altogether a surprise but still it is the expansive ending that any comedy calls for and it is here very well done. It is a novel packed with gaiety and executed expertly. It will not change your life but it will provide you with an evening of stylish entertainment.
About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His book Joyce Country, a guide to persons and places, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places