Jonathan Evison, All About Lulu

Publisher: Soft Skull Press
2009, 340 pages, paperback, $14.95

jonathan evison pays homage to literary heavyweight J.D. Salinger by opening his debut novel, All About Lulu, with the same turn of phrase made famous in Catcher in the Rye: “First, I’m going to give you all the Copperfield crap.” Both novels follow a first-person narrator/protagonist whose anti-heroic feats complicate the nineteenth-century novelistic convention of the bildungsroman, but where Salinger depicts the post-WW II disaffected youth culture through the melancholy perspective of Holden Caulfield, Evison approaches the final decades of the twentieth-century through the humorous voice of William Miller, a young man who conjures up his childhood to tell the story of his misplaced love for Lulu, the title character.

Set in 1980s and 1990s southern California and Seattle, Will’s ex-hippie professional bodybuilder father, Big Bill, remarries a grief counselor who has a young daughter named Lulu, who becomes the unrequited object of affection for the young boy. Will follows Lulu like a puppy without a mother, and rightfully so, since readers learn within the first few pages that he has lost his mother to breast cancer. He copes with his grief by losing his voice and his appetite, which troubles his father, whose standard response to distress is “No pain, no gain.” Fortunately, Will regains his appetite and his speech when Lulu and her mother take up residence in his house. After feeling like an outcast with his carnivorous patriarch and younger twins who are following in Pop’s footsteps, Will finds an ally in the mysterious Lulu, who befriends him and becomes his closest companion. So enamored is Will with the impetuous Lulu that he begins a journal series entitled The Book of Lulu, which he maintains years after it has become clear she wants nothing more than a distant sibling relationship.

For Evison, humor provides the levity necessary to enter the world of his narrator, Will, a myopic vegetarian kid whose mother’s recent death precipitates the action for the novel. Where Catcher in the Rye encapsulates the fractured society of post-War America, All About Lulu‘s humorous tone, particularly when highlighting Big Bill’s rippling biceps and ample servings of brisket and sausage links, relies upon its readers’ awareness of the ways in which conspicuous consumption and affluence played out in 1980s and 90s America. Evison’s underlying themes are far from ham-handed, and even if you don’t care a bit for contemporary social commentary, Will’s hilarious perspective about himself and his quirky family will take you on a romp through some of the most ostentatious hyper-masculine Venice Beach calisthenics, as well as through the rain-soaked streets of Grunge-era Seattle.

I enjoyed the book’s self-deprecating humor and its colorful cast of characters, from burger flipping co-worker Acne Scar Joe to Will’s twin meathead brothers. While I recommend this book to readers for all of the above reasons, I admit I was not wholly satisfied by the ending or by the novel’s preoccupation with a female character who falls flat as the narrator surpasses her. Even though I recognize that it’s Will’s narrow understanding of his stepsister’s difficult life that is at stake, Lulu’s character still troubled me. No doubt Evison deserves high praise for seamlessly depicting Lulu as a by-product of late twentieth-century middle class American values, exemplifying the fractured psyche of a person with so much potential but without a solid foundation from which to launch herself. Is this an accurate reflection of Generation X? Perhaps. Would I have been more engaged had the male character been the one flailing rather than a female character whose passivity edges dangerously close to clich&eacutes of traditional femininity? In all honesty, yes.

Still, Evison’s depiction of Will and Lulu’s burgeoning relationship prior to Lulu’s young adulthood is nothing less than stellar. The language of Will’s emotional and sexual awakening sings off the page. Keep an eye out for this gifted young writer. If All About Lulu is any indication, Jonathan Evison’s future creative projects are not to be missed.

-Gwynne Middleton