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Big Babies by Sherwood Kiraly Berkley Pub Co. US 1997
You can choose your friends, the old adage says, but not your family. And in the case of orphans well they are up for grabs by almost anyone who can appear sane and solvent enough to the right agencies. What happens after the ink on the adoption papers dries, according to narrator Adlai Jerome Fleger in Sherwood Kiraly's latest offering Big Babies, is unbridled domestic chaos and a life of coming to terms with a situation wildly beyond personal control; the result, which had me giggling out loud, is an astute and compellingly acerbic extended lampoon of contemporary American culture as seen through the eyes of a middle-age adoptee struggling to write his life story in a letter to the birth mother he has never met.
In keeping with the 20th century American novelists' obsession with dysfunctional characters and families (from Faulkner's deep south gothic in As I Lay Dying, through Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, to DeLillo's apocalyptic vision of contemporary family values in White Noise), Kiraly constructs a nightmarish family scenario in Big Babies in which adoptee Adlai Jerome (AJ) finds himself stuck between a doting mother and a surly pop who thinks nothing of dumping his geriatric mother-in-law on her ass on the snowy front lawn.
It is not until his late thirties that AJ discovers the identity of his birth mother at which point he feels compelled to write her his life story which includes that of his fellow adopted brother, Sterling. In choosing to frame AJ's narrative in epistolary form, Kiraly stretches his novel to breaking point with that most American of literary devices - the limited first person point of view. Behind AJ's pathos-filled descriptions of a childhood in the shadow of his older, more popular, more athletic brother Sterling, the reader can almost hear the voices of his first person forebears Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield and Portnoy, with all their value judgments, insecurities and foibles. And therein lies part of the charm, for Big Babies is an unashamed (and brave) attempt to place the novel at the end of a line that includes those touchstone American heroes. As Holden says: "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like . . ."
AJ's exhaustive letter to his birth mother is at once hilarious and harrowing, replete with tales of what seem to him to be childhood domestic horrors after which comes his downhill slide into utter mediocrity until his absurd phoenix-like rise from obscurity at age thirty-something. Adopted brother Sterling, for his part, is the archetypal product of American television culture, whose sole ambition is to become a famous actor. He fantasises that his birth parents are Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson, who, he insists will reveal their true identity when he achieves star status. With an uncanny acting talent, Sterling finally gets his shot at the big time with a small role in a live national television stand-up comedy show where he somehow fluffs the one line that he had to deliver, totally ruining an otherwise hilarious Charles Manson gag - and his career on the stage to boot.
From here on AJ recounts how both he and his brother sink fast into oblivion in their twenties and thirties: Sterling wallowing in the career advice industry in Southern California; AJ a recovering alcoholic back East. But their lives take a turn for the better on reuniting in California when Sterling decides to get back into the movie business as a stuntman and AJ falls in love and marries. But while marriage to Abbie Zane brings happiness and a child to AJ, he becomes a paranoid father obsessed with the dangers of the world to his daughter, Maggie.
With every household object a potential death-trap for the infant Maggie, AJ becomes involved in the manufacture of space-age baby protection suits in the absurdly named "Little Spudge Face Baby Safety Company". After years of drifting from one dead end job to another, AJ finally achieves financial security through the constant exercising of a morbid and irrational death fear. Kiraly, reminiscent here of DeLillo, seems to be proffering a thesis that in contemporary society wealth is attained by safety obsessed inventors who come up with schemes like the passenger's side inflatable air bag or the flip-back highway traffic cone. In this world creativity is spawned by paranoia.
While reading like a conventional first person narrative, the reader must constantly remind himself that this is in fact a letter to a mother that AJ has never met. This makes the writing of this totally absurd family history all the more blackly comic. What, you ask yourself, must Irene Galowicz Otto (AJ's birth mother) think when this two hundred and some page letter lands in her post-box from this paranoid son that she only knew for a few days, telling her of his crazy (but ultimately lucrative) business schemes and off-beat life?
And what must she think of the story about brother Sterling who finds his birth family after playing a murderer on a true crime show on television only to discover that the murderer is his brother, Lester Bogle? Television is thus portrayed in Big Babies as a medium that brings long lost families together. But typically this is no happy family reunion, as Sterling's new TV-found family, the "Bogles" make his dysfunctional adoptive family seem like the Brady Bunch by comparison.
Of course there is always the possibility that Irene Galowicz Otto will be totally unfazed by his revelations after a life exposed to the same crazy world of television and pop culture kitsch. She could conceivably be even nuttier than Lester's birth family, the monstrous Bogles. We will never know and probably just as well.
As the letter hurtles towards its climax, so the tale of rampant consumerism and media madness veers increasingly towards the absurd, with AJ's narrative concentrating more on Sterling's career as a stuntman than on his own life. With Sterling's murderous birth brother Lester stalking him, the depressed and frustrated actor seizes the opportunity to make up for his earlier television failure by agreeing to take part in an insane publicity stunt - the ultimate test of the "Little Spudge Face Baby Safety Suit" - volunteering as a human cannonball to be hurled hundreds of feet across the Las Vegas "strip" on New Year's Eve in front of a live TV audience of millions.
In a scene echoing the filmed assassinations of both JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald, the insane Lester turns up to shoot Sterling as he lifts his shattered body from the strip after his cannonball antics. But in an ironic reversal of those infamous killings, the Spudge Safety Suit saves the reluctantly gung-ho Sterling who proceeds to perform his lines perfectly to the camera before being whisked to the operating table.
In the final chapter AJ tells Irene that he wrote this letter about himself and his brother to let her know what had become of her baby and to console her (and himself?); for while he did not turn out to be a doctor or some other worthwhile professional, at least he turned out better than Sterling. It doesn't matter if she prefers not to get in touch after all the years that have passed. As AJ says in closing: "we're no worse off than we were before." He seems happy to have laid bare his crazy, mixed-up life to an unseen confessor. And as for Kiraly: he can afford himself a self-congratulatory pat on the back for pulling the reader into a world with a letter while taking an hilariously mordant and original swipe at premillennial cultural obsessions. In the end you're left hoping that the letter is read by his long lost mother, just as it deserves to be by the reading public.
Review by Lindsay McGarvie © The Barcelona Review