The Grievers by Marc Schuster
The Permanent Press (May 2012)
Reviewed by Curtis Smith
How do we mourn the dead? It’s not an easy question, especially when the deceased was a person we weren’t terribly close to, a once-friend we’d allowed to slip away. Heighten the stakes and make it a messy death, a death that leaves the living with no easy answers or solace. Marc Schuster’s latest novel, The Grievers, paints a portrait of grief and friendship in a tale as touching as it is comic.
Comic? Yes, decidedly comic, and it’s this vein of humor—sometimes uncomfortable but always intelligent and deeply empathetic—that gives The Grievers its undeniable charm. There’s Charley, the main character, a man who opens the book with an argument with his wife concerning the heat gun’s place amid the manly pantheon of power tools. Charley also has a day job—a human placard marching outside a local bank, his dissertation put at bay while he sweats inside a cardboard box shaped like a dollar sign. Want more? How about a delusional friend who’s producing a Broadway musical based on Hogan’s Heroes. A memorial service that morphs into a fundraising festival/carnival sideshow. An incident at a local restaurant over the appropriate use of apostrophes.
But beneath the laughter, deeper questions lurk. What do we, the living, owe the dead? This is the question that vexes Charley, a young man lost in the haze of graduate work and a prolonged adolescence. His friend’s death leaves him with a sense of guilt, and it’s this burden that sometimes steers poor Charley off course, his best intentions hijacked by confusion and a simmering anger born from his inability to wrap his head around his friend’s sorry fate. Of course there are deaths to be expected, from the old and the sick and the chronically reckless, but the deaths that come from out of the blue, especially the ones that claim the first of our peers, can be jolting. There is no roadmap for the healing process, our efforts to cope often clumsy or, worse yet, self-destructive.
Redemption waits not in the fruitless quest to understand but in our relationships with our families and friends and loved ones. An underlying theme in The Grievers is the reward to be found in letting go of old grudges, especially the grudges of adolescence, a time when small, sometimes casual slights can feel absolutely crushing. Schuster deftly takes this motif and applies it to the larger concern at hand. We can have our grief, but in the end, we must let go of it and its pain if we hope to move on. In The Grievers, Marc Schuster provides us with an example of this, a picture rendered in the most tender of emotions—in sadness and bewilderment, friendship and love, and, finally, acceptance.
Curtis Smith interviews Marc Schuster
Curtis Smith: What's with all the funny in a book about grief?
Marc Schuster: Initially, Charley’s grief is really for himself. He’s an extremely self-centered individual and essentially a clownish figure. It isn’t until later in the novel that he starts to feel true grief for the passing of his friend. So the humor is there, at least in part, to underscore the fact that I don’t see him as especially heroic, particularly in the early goings of the narrative. Another reason for the humor, of course, is to lighten the mood of what could otherwise be a very dark book. It's also how I deal with a lot of serious issues in my own life. That is, I tend to make jokes out of them. I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t always the best of strategies, but it’s one of the few coping mechanisms I have at my disposal.
CS: Along those lines, Charley Schwartz, your main character, is lovable but he's also a mess. Tell us some important ways you and he are alike and different.
MS: I’m about ten years older than Charley, so I have the benefit of hindsight, at least as far as my twenties are concerned. I also hope I’m a little less self-absorbed than he is. As far as similarities go, we’ve had almost identical experiences with respect to our schooling. We’ve both been through prep school and clawed our way through graduate school. Then again, I’m not sure Charley ever made it to the end of that particular endeavor. There’s a good chance he’s still seeking extensions on completing his dissertation to this day.
CS: I love the Philly backdrop. What is it about the city that influences what we see in The Grievers? Would it be a different story if it were set in Atlanta or Los Angeles?
MS: I’ve never really lived anywhere other than Philadelphia, so it would be difficult for me to set the novel anywhere else. If I did, I’m sure readers would know I was faking it. But what I find especially endearing about Philadelphia, particularly as far as The Grievers is concerned, is the diversity of the city’s neighborhoods. I can have Charley living in a somewhat blue-collar suburb while his nemesis Frank Dearborn lives in a much more exclusive neighborhood just a couple of miles away. Meanwhile, they’ve both gone to a prep school in a fairly rundown part of the city. Bouncing between all of these worlds is easy in a city like Philadelphia.
CS: Charley's got a crappy job. What was your worst job?
MS: I worked at Everything’s a Dollar when I was in college. The chain had gone bankrupt by then, and we were slashing prices every few days. It got particularly demoralizing when everything in the store was marked down to thirty-three cents. What made the job worse was that people still wanted to haggle with me over the price of inflatable guitars and plastic roses. I guess thirty-three cents was still too much to ask for some of the junk we were selling.
CS: So is a heat gun really a power tool?
MS: I’m going to have to go with Charley on this one: You plug it in, don’t you? It makes a noise, doesn’t it? And I probably wouldn’t operate one while under the influence of cough medicine. So, yes, I think it qualifies.