In Print : All in the family
Apologize, Apologize! By Elizabeth Kelly, Twelve, 2009, 324 pp, $23.99
The first novel by Canadian journalist Elizabeth Kelly is a close-up portrait of the dangerously eccentric Flanagan family who divide their time between Boston and Martha's Vineyard. But although a few Vineyard names are dropped - Squibnocket Beach, Chilmark - the author makes no attempt to convey Martha's Vineyard as anything other than the generic setting for characters who bounce from comic to tragic.
The protagonist, Collie Flanagan, serves as narrator, guiding the reader through the paths of family dysfunction: "My grandfather always assumed a wry and world-weary tone when referring to his only child. Whenever Ma's name came up, I half expected him to ask for a cigarette while waving off the blindfold. Ma raised us to believe she was interesting, in the same way that Stalin's family was no doubt encouraged to think of him as an eccentric."
Collie, beleaguered as he is, is the closest to being sane among a manic and privileged family composed of a psychotic, a philanderer, a media baron, a self-destructive charmer, and a menagerie of animals. His grandfather, Peregrine Lowell, is an imperious media mogul who begrudgingly supports Collie's deranged mother, who hates all but her youngest ne'er-do-well son, Bingo. He, in turn, is a charismatic and fearless failure. Included on the dole are a philandering father, and a miserable step-and-fetch-it, pigeon-racing uncle. But it is Bingo who ultimately topples the decaying structure on which everyone is precariously balanced.
It's a lot to deal with for the enterprising Collie who is determined to have a meaningful life despite all. "Memories of home follow me wherever I go, chewing at my heels, panting for attention, as unyielding as all the dogs my mother accumulated over the years. Wet dog and the salty brio of surrounding sea air - my past hangs on in great olfactory waves."
The book is composed of two halves: the first half is dedicated to demonstrating each character's eccentricities in such detail as to make the reader immune to reaction; the last half, much darker and less comic in tone, finally offers plot and action. It chronicles the various trials that befall the long suffering Collie, who is mired in family mayhem, and struggles from El Salvador to Ireland and back, from a series of unrelated careers, to free himself.
Reminiscent of the tales of other fictional dysfunctionals, the story chugs bumpily along. None of the characters are especially endearing. But the redeeming element of "Apologize, Apologize!" is the author's ability to fashion sentences that conjure wonderful images and descriptions, to combine factual details with fancy, and to do it all in elegant style.
"Feeling restless, with yet another failure under my belt, I decided to go home for the weekend. Autumn leaves were falling and the ocean winds were blowing as I walked slowly up the long laneway leading to the house, running into Bachelor and Sykes halfway. Their barking attracted the other dogs, buoyant pack swirling around me like leaves and wind, like so much ticker tape and confetti - I felt as if I were liberating Paris instead of just going home for the weekend."