This Week's Reads

Brendan Halpin and Jennifer Traig.

Donorboy

By Brendan Halpin (Villard, $12.95) As a debut novelist, Brendan Halpin tries to win our love the same way his protagonist, unlikely parent Sean Cassidy, does: It's my first time. I'm learning as I go. Please take pity on me. Though the Nice but Hopelessly Awkward Guy shtick is a hit-or-miss tactic, Donorboy does a good job of capturing the emotional makeup (and diction) of Sean's daughter, a smart but disaffected 14-year-old girl named Rosalind, who's suddenly orphaned when a truck full of frozen poultry overturns on her lesbian moms, Sandy and Eva. (The book's title refers to her disdainful nickname for her unqualified adoptive parent, single attorney Sean, who donated the key ingredient that brought Rosalind into being.) Before the poultry incident, Sean is a certified bachelor in the Nick Hornby vein: He plays PS2 incessantly, can't keep a girlfriend, and turns classic-rock song titles into e-mail subject lines as a matter of course. Accordingly, Donorboy smacks of Hornby's About a Boy—except that Rosalind is hardly the female equivalent of Boy's cute-and-cuddly Marcus. Instead, she's a prickly, independent-minded proto-punk. Halpin gives us direct access to both characters through their writing; nearly the entire novel consists of e-mail from Sean (to Rosalind or his friend Dave, who talks him through Parenting 101) and Rosalind's entries in her "grief journal," a term she spends most of the first entry mocking. With its Odd Couple premise and semi-clichéd supporting characters, Donorboy frequently resembles a sitcom, and Halpin seems fully aware that he's wading into dangerous territory (he acknowledges as much by making Eva a former sitcom star). Yet I admire the way he sets up the social tug-of-war surrounding Rosalind after her moms die: She feels alienated from her "goody-goody" friends and drawn to the burnouts, but maintains ties with both groups as she struggles to figure out who she is. Halpin is on fairly solid emotional ground in his examination of the accident's effect on teenage Rosalind; his comedy, on the other hand, feels forced and too self-conscious. In his first memoir, It Takes a Worried Man, he was the title character; in his follow-up, Losing My Faculties, he worried his way through the wilds of public-school teaching. I'd like to see Halpin distance himself from the "worried man" device in his next novel. Rosalind's cool introspection, foul mouth, and flashing anger suggest that he's capable of doing just that. NEAL SCHINDLER Devil in the Details: Scenes From an Obsessive Girlhood

By Jennifer Traig (Little, Brown, $22.95) Yes, the devil is in fact in the details, particularly when those details are described and redescribed and gone over with a fine-tooth comb. The details here are concerned with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which Jennifer Traig battled while growing up, and the problem is that she approaches her memoir with a tone that matches the illness of her '70s youth. Much in the same way that she had to repeat certain tasks and replicate prayers over and over, Devil can seem like a broken record. Although she uses dry, self-effacing humor to good effect, the small stories that make up Traig's larger life history feel overlong and annoyingly looped. Though she's entitled to use a harping, badgering Jewish comic sensibility (think Woody Allen or Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm), Traig too often succumbs to shtick. Her obsessive girlhood would have been better served in a shorter format—like a sitcom episode, perhaps. This is often a problem with memoirs written by relative unknowns. (And no, being a friend of Dave Eggers, in and of itself, doesn't quite make you a known quantity; and I'm not sure that many of us have read Judaikitsch, her humor book.) Celebrities can get away with exhaustively telling their personal histories, regardless of how one-note they are, because even when there isn't much to know about them, there's a segment of the public who will want to know every minute detail. But unless you're an anxious Jew, suffer from an eating disorder, or were obsessive-compulsive during adolescence, you might not be totally enthralled with the pages and pages of devilish detail that Traig uses to flesh out her bizarre food rituals (carrot sticks dipped in mustard, gum for breakfast—but only if everything's kosher!), religious rites of passage, and her so-called teenage life. Writing about how anxious she felt in her driver's training classes, she begins by explaining that driver's training is "just an awful concept. It's The Breakfast Club crossed with Speed." Someone get Jerry Seinfeld on the phone; Traig owes him some royalties. It's not that she isn't funny—in fact, some of the deadpan characterizations of her family members are almost laugh-out-loud funny. If they weren't so bogged down by her endlessly self-deprecating data, a TV pilot based on them might actually be hilarious— provided somebody else wrote the rest of the series. LAURA CASSIDY

 
comments powered by Disqus