Book Review: Kids These Days

Here’s another book review from the recent past that I thought was lost in online vapor due to corporate changeovers. It was written by Drew Perry, an Elon professor and was his second novel.I enjoyed both. I have yet to meet Perry in person. I hope to one of these days on campus.

Here goes from February 2014…

“Kids These Days,” by Drew Perry. Copyright 2014, Algonquin, 311 pages, $14.95.

Lampooning domestic uncertainty is Drew Perry’s specialty. In his first novel, “This is just Exactly Like You,” a hapless husband is far too educated to be trapped where he is, but not smart enough to avoid his own funky judgment.

“Kids These Days,” Perry’s second and newest novel, features a bewildered husband at a marital and career junction who watches life unfold as if trapped watching a TV program in which he has no grip on the remote control.

These flawed but inherently decent, wife-infuriating men are neither heroic nor villainous. What they are, mostly, is befuddled — in some ways, everymen who are simply trying to find their way in the world, but seem to have no real idea of how to go about it.

For Perry, a writing professor at Elon University, such inestimable characters do serve as vital springboards into an oddly vibrant world of absurdities.

Their boredom and confusion stand in stark contrast to the unusual situations and events that unfold around them. It’s a plot device that creates a wide avenue for Perry to smoothly pave with observations that are at first glance hilarious, but also darkly poignant commentaries on American family life, relationships, parenting, wealth and careers.

Perry’s first novel published in 2010, is set in Alamance and eastern Guilford counties, and explores a fraying marriage tattered by a husband’s inability to finish almost anything aside from being a father-savant to the couple’s autistic son. “This is Just Exactly Like You” is of particular interest to Burlington-area readers for its obvious geographical references both real — the Brightwood Inn, for example — or the university with a fictional name that mirrors Elon. Beyond that, though, it’s an extraordinary first novel that won wide acclaim upon its release.

Perry created an entertaining and engaging yet troubling book that ultimately fascinates largely because it’s hard to believe that a novel where so little actually happens can be captivating from start to finish. It’s a slice surgically taken from one small portion of suburban life with enough comedy, pathos and empathy that a reader might mull its characters long after putting the book down.

That’s no small feat.

“Kids These Days,” released in January, is set in Florida where Walter Ingram and wife Alice have taken haven in a beach condo once owned by a late relative. It’s a safe house where there is no rent to pay and the promise of a job for Walter, who was laid off by his Charlotte bank just as Alice becomes pregnant with their first child.

Walter isn’t exactly sure how he feels about any of it. Pending fatherhood isn’t appealing and he’s not sure what to make of the nebulous job being offered by his brother-in-law Mid, an apparently wealthy and successful developer with what seems to be a lot of diverse and downright strange business ventures at his disposal.

Throw in a 15-year-old daughter who wants a tattoo and a new name, a would-be pirate, a parachutist, a fish camp and a hyper-energized OB-GYN and it all sounds like a Carl Hiassen novel in the making.

Perry, though, seems to have larger goals than simply dredging Florida’s swampland for stereotypically shady escapades. While surrounded by dozens of questionable circumstances and situations, Walter serves as the dry-erase board for whether actions are seemingly right or apparently wrong and what, if anything, should or could be done about any of it. Indeed, in Perry’s world, there are few answers but lots of questions. Life is full of, well, indecision.

Perry excels at applying a light comedic touch. He doesn’t oversell his characters or the circumstances in which they find themselves. His metaphors — one a recurring character readers never meet who monitors sea turtle nests, for example — aren’t inescapable but never obvious.

The dialogue is spare but real. Perry has a deft ear for the formula of daily conversation between a husband and wife. Often the real information is contained in what isn’t being said.

Readers who go along for the ride can expect some laughs. But they might also find something more. Perry’s view of the world leaves an imprint.

When all is said and done, readers are left to wonder just what actually happened and how they should feel about it.

Madison Taylor is executive editor of the Times-News.

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