Eve Tushnet’s debut novel, Amends, is a novel of ideas – the ideas she’s been working out in bits and pieces through her essays. It’s an ambitious and risky project but Eve mostly pulls it off. At last raising the bushel from her gift for shtick, she carries off a story that’s almost always engrossing, and often a real hoot.
The plot: Six addicts of diverse backgrounds sign on to appear on a reality show. The show, Amends, is the brainchild of Bentley, herself a recovering addict, who aims to prove that admitting fault, apologizing to the people they’ve harmed, and making amends will speed along their recovery and contribute to their emotional well-being. Reporting for 30 days to a locked-down rehab facility under the “muzzles” of the cameras, the six endure the nausea of withdrawal and each other’s company. After submitting to a series of therapeutic exercises, they are brought face to face with the human collateral damage wrought by their addictions. After treatment ends, we get to drop in periodically on the characters to find out how they’re doing. There is a romantic subplot.
Eve has 20/20 vision for goofy cultural trends, and at times her characters look like their living embodiments. J. Malachi, a tippling Anglophile and pundit for magazines with titles like New Flâneur and Hound and Gentry, was raised in Berkeley on books with titles like Sebastian and the Magic Pamphlet and The Mermaid Who Wished for Pants. Shayna, a recent college grad and recovering heroin user, claims to be “otherkin” – a wolf born in a human’s body – has renamed herself “Sharptooth,” and polices everyone’s language, including her own. “I suggested that a sophomore who identified as homoromantic agendered demisexual was probably ‘really’ gay,” she confesses at one point. “It was totally erasing.”
This is first-rate satire, served up with a deadpan that Evelyn Waugh would have admired. Amends could have been a cold, slick and masterful black comedy like The Loved One, Waugh’s spoof on Hollywood and its burial practices. But the characters are even fitter subjects for sympathy than mockery. No matter how much they resemble caricatures – Sharptooth, if it needs saying, is about as close to pure comic relief as they come – they’re capable of insight and growth. Though their quirks sometimes approach grotesquerie, their emotions, including contrition, remain on an engagingly human scale.
Plonking six major characters, give or take, into a constraining environment would create technical difficulties for any author. Eve’s thoughts on sin, atonement and identity are subtle and sometimes lend themselves better to telling than showing. Consequently, lectures are delivered, finer points of morality debated. At times, the story sags a little under the didacticism. Eve seems to apologize for this when she has one of her characters remark, at the beginning of the treatment program, “We have died and been reborn into a Chekhov play. Let’s whine and suffer and stare at each other.”
But the story survives these occasional doldrums, thanks largely to the dialogue, which sparkles, especially when it accelerates into repartee. “I don’t think you’re ‘wolfkin’ at all,” Medea, alcoholic lesbian playwright, tells Sharptooth. “With your rehearsed tapes and your – your opposable thumbs…I think you’re Teddy Ruxkin.” Snapping out of space cadethood, Sharptooth comes back with, “I’m sure that’s an awful insult, for someone of your generation.”
But the scene where it really comes together takes place during Family Day, when the addicts swap accusations and apologies with their relatives. Colton, a gay, black sometime porn actor catches hell from his sister, Rian, who believes he neglected her. The two reconcile in an exchange of book titles they think would do justice to their rotten childhood:
“I bet you and me could do a whole series. Call a Cop on Pop. Little Meth Lab on the Prairie.”
“Oh, the Places You’ll Puke!”
“The Pokey Little Needle.”
“The Tale of Peter Touch-It.”
Eve does her characters a favor by not tapping any of them to serve as her full-time sock puppet. This also counts as a favor to readers – Amends is meant to be an object of analysis and discussion, not a tract. It covers a lot of ground, from the nature of addiction and recovery to the social media panopticon to the distinction between punishment and restorative justice. (God, naturally, gets his fair share of page space.) As long as the action stays out of the ether, which it does most of the time, whoever has a personal stake in any of these questions might find himself sufficiently moved to shout back at the book – or, in my case, the Kindle screen.
Eve Tushnet is a writer with a lot to say and a huge range of talents. As worthwhile a read as I found Amends, it would be interesting to see what she could accomplish by shrinking her scope, confining her attentions to a smaller number of characters and themes. Had she decided to go deep instead of broad, she could have squeezed three or four novels from the raw material of Amends. Then again, for her next trick, she might decide to go both deep and broad. In her view, more could always be more.