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Reviewed: Jeff Oliver’s “Failure To Thrive”

“Beginning to tell a story is like making a pass at a total stranger in a restaurant.” With an opening sentence, “the flirtation begins and the story takes off.” So explains Amos Oz in his beguiling book of essays on literature The Story Begins. If opening sentences serve as flirtations, then Jeff Oliver in his debut novel, Failure to Thrive, throws a hail-mary pass that lands, beautifully, in the arms of the readers:

“A three hundred pound pro wrestler in lime green tights yanks the yarmulke off Jonathan Farb’s head and with it a fistful of Jewfro. His name is the Big Samoan and his legion of drunk fans cheer him on ringside: “Get that goddamn beanie! Jewboy’s gotta learn!”

This sentences acts not only as a hook, but sets the tone of the book, and in the case of this novel, announces the arrival of a serious talent. Oliver, with his feet stuck on the pedal, doesn’t relent.

Failure to Thrive tells the story of a reality TV producer, Jonathan Farb, who on the same day learns of a tumor in his brain and of his wife’s infidelity with a narcissistic bearded OB/GYN, the obstetrician who delivered their baby. Fearing his imminent death, Farb attempts to teach all his fatherly wisdom to his five month old son. He teaches him not only know about birds, bee and shiksas, but also about religion, money, politics and yes even about strip clubs. The strip club scene with Farb and his baby strikes me as one of the best strip club baby scenes, ever. Granted, there might be scant competition, but still, Oliver’s treatment of a potentially absurd scene turns into true comedic fodder as well as evinces deep tenderness. (A stripper snatches at the baby’s cheek saying, “what a shayna panim,” with a doting, possibly dying father, looking on, shepping nachas.) Besides, sticking 15 years of fatherhood into a few days, Farb attempts to achieve his career goals in finding the confidence to finally pitch the TV show he knows will work, “Canada’s Next Great Apologist,” because as Farb proclaims, “we should feel pride in our national talent”.

Besides a great ear and eye for the comedy in life, even amongst tragedy, Oliver’s talent lies in satire, though playful satire. Oliver takes on the insane world of obsessive parenting, the innards of network TV, our obsession with health foods, the insanity of certain religious people, and the sheer boredom of life, yet, Oliver, never falls into the realm of snark. All his satire displays a healthy loving sense of humor with enough bite to matter. Much of this rests in his ability to notice the details amongst the crazy circumstances of life. For example, Carol, the wife of the man who is having an affair with Farb’s wife, imagines the lovers having sex on, “her six hundred thread count Egyptian combed cotton sheets.” John Coltrane once wrote about the strangeness of vacuuming his house after creating his masterpiece A Love Supreme. The mundane, petty, stupid, but ultimately humane aspects of life do not cease for extreme moments, whether extreme pain or beauty. In these spaces, in the gap between circumstance and reaction, humor arises, and Oliver captures it.
On the whole, the arc displays a lesson learnt from the Coen brothers. The absurdities pile up in a frantic pace, violence intrudes, unexpectedly, into peoples’ lives, and characters find themselves in ridiculous situations, unable to grab their bearings. However, unlike the Coen brothers, Oliver loves his characters, and seeks to provide a sense of a strong emotional center, whereas, many of the great Coen Brothers films lack characters with a strong sense of empathy. Often, but not always, The Coen brothers seeks to create humorous situations instead of humorous characters, the Dude, of course, stands as their greatest exception.

Like all great comedy, Oliver knows that the best humor infuses some tragedy, or weight into the story. In a story of death, infidelity, and the prospect of an infant growing up without his father, Oliver never teeters into the maudlin. Rather, he creates a space for the insights that only humor can reveal. Here, in a letter written to his son in the future, Farb captures the tension and hilarity of oversexualized and overintellectualized Jewish men.

“And soak up the knowledge! To be erudite is a lofty goal, a tradition of your ancestry. Jews are known as, ‘The People of the Book’ for a reason and so long as there is a nubile blond out there willing to trade a titty-flash for good study notes we will remain thus. Many a Bloomfield and Lipschitz (and Farb!) have gotten laid for no other reason than they gave good math tutorial.

Carpe Tuchus!

Your Proud Father”

The book lags a little in the simplicity of its plot; there’s a creeping cartoonishness to parts of the story that feels unnecessary, and things fall a little too easily into place, but these factors don’t negate the larger picture. You forgive Oliver because the story engenders such warm feelings towards its protagonist, towards his deeply humane struggles.  The book, though not perfect, introduces a writer of wit, perceptive cultural insights, and a big heart. Oliver, in his introduction, explains that much of the writing arose from those ungodly hazy hours in the night/morning when his child would not go to sleep. One can only hope that Oliver plans on more children, or at least more hours awake while the rest of the world sleeps, letting his mind wander to wondrous places.

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