A Comic Novel Reunites a Damaged Dad and His Recalcitrant Offspring
By Andrew Ridker
Even if it’s true that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, it seems pretty clear that many have the same dilemmas and woes. One that frequently pops up in life and literature is an inability or unwillingness to let go of the past and its generations-spanning mistakes, disappointments and resentments.
The tyranny of the past is a central problem in “The Altruists,” Andrew Ridker’s intelligent, funny and remarkably assured first novel. The book’s family-get-together plot tosses Arthur Alter and his two adult children a chance — possibly their last — to escape their individual ruts of inherited grief, guilt and misguided attempts at altruism, finally connect with one another and move on.
Naturally, things don’t go as planned. Whatever that means for the characters, it’s good news for readers: The clash of reunion expectations and the reality of family ties give Ridker an opportunity to write some of the book’s most comedic and moving scenes and, in doing so, to establish himself as a big, promising talent.
Two years after his wife’s death, Arthur is unraveling. At 65, he’s a disrespected adjunct professor of engineering at a private Midwestern university. “His career was in a coffin, ignored by even the thirstiest of academic vampires.” He’d like to end his relationship with a much younger junior faculty member, but then “he’d have to confront the loneliness that had frightened him into her arms in the first place.” His son and daughter — both living in New York — barely speak to him. Among other unforgivable offenses, Arthur started his affair before their mother’s cancer diagnosis and continued it throughout her decline.
He wakes up one morning broke and at risk of losing the family house in a privileged residential enclave of St. Louis. He misses his children. Sort of. “What he missed was his old life, and his children had been part of that. … The children — and the unexpected money in their name.”
Ah, yes, the money! This is a substantial sum his wife secretly invested and left to their kids in a last-minute revision to her will. She assessed her husband’s uncharacteristic kindness in her final days and concluded that he had to be sleeping with someone else. “‘Maybe I’m being nice. Can’t I be nice?’ ‘No,’ she said. ‘No, Arthur, I don’t think you can.’” (That comment is a clue to readers about how likely they are to cozy up to Arthur. At least initially.)
Hoping to hit them up for a loan, Arthur sends terse notes to “the children” proposing they come back to St. Louis for a long weekend. “Important to see family, remember roots, &C.”
It’s not as if Maggie and Ethan Alter have forgotten their roots. If anything, they’re being choked by them. In their late 20s and early 30s respectively, they’re still wrestling with the loss of their mother, Francine, their guilt about the unearned money they inherited from her and their anger at Dad.
Maggie is trying to make a difference in the world, mostly through ineffective self-sacrifice. She’s dumped her corporate boyfriend, lives in a partially boarded-up apartment building and rarely eats. Between fainting spells, she does low-paying odd jobs “for the good people of Queens.” This includes tutoring preteen brothers, one of whom practices martial arts on her. “Maggie tolerated, even welcomed, Bruno’s abuse. … Because that was the thing about trying to do good: You always wound up knuckled in the gut.” Ridker’s satire of ill-conceived do-gooderism is scathing and hilarious, making Maggie both ridiculous and sympathetic.
While Maggie is starving, Ethan is “girding himself in comfort.” He’s bought a sunny Brooklyn apartment and outfitted it with expensive kitchen appliances he rarely uses. In a fit of moral disgust, he quit his job at a predatory consulting firm and began spending down his savings and his inheritance. When “The Altruists” opens, he’s in debt, single and reclusive. More than one boyfriend has dropped him thanks to his passivity and emotional unavailability. He spends his time reading philosophy as “an antidote to all the screens, a diversion from the Crate and Barrel spirits cabinet with its lacquer exterior and liquor interior.”
The siblings, unaware of their father’s financial crisis and with mercenary plans of their own, agree to his suggested visit. They arrive in St. Louis shortly after a tornado has ripped the roof off a concourse at the airport, which kind of says it all.
Andrew Ridker edited an anthology of “surveillance poetics,” published in 2014. That is, poetry dealing with the disappearance of privacy thanks to drones, tracking devices and other tools of voyeurism. He writes sentences with the lively, poetic zing of one as attuned to the sounds of words as to their meanings. “A vast, flocculent cloud darkened and devitalized the city, mimicking the family mood like weather does in memories.” A character’s bald spot is “berated” by rain. His commentary on the cultural eccentricities of pre-Trump middle-class America (the book is set in 2015) is astute and highly entertaining. “His classmates were extremely forthcoming with sensitive information, as though intimacy wasn’t something to be earned, but baby-birded from one mouth to another.” And his descriptions have enough wit and psychological accuracy to make even minor characters spring to multidimensional life. “The dean’s leathery voice was gilded with an aristocratic affect he exhibited tastefully, like a gold watch that spends most of its time tucked under a sleeve.”
It is perhaps appropriate that in writing about characters so burdened by the weight of the past, Ridker devotes nearly as many pages to backward glances as he does to present action. In scenes told from alternating points of view — including that of the late matriarch, Francine — he explores, among other things, Ethan’s college days and awkward coming out, Francine’s childhood and adolescence, and Arthur and Francine’s courtship. Most significantly (and with great success) he describes an extended trip Arthur made to Africa when he was in his early 30s and still idealistic. His plan was to use his engineering skills to bring sanitation to rural Zimbabwe. The spectacular failure of his project brings him, literally, to his knees, shapes his future and haunts the entire family for decades to come. Ridker’s ambitious blend of global perspective and intimate human comedy seems likely to evoke comparisons to the work of Jonathan Franzen and Nathan Hill.
As convincing and engaging as these flashbacks are, they do interrupt the main story line that’s set up in the opening chapters, and at times I longed for more unimpeded forward momentum. Maggie and Ethan don’t arrive at that damaged airport until the novel’s midpoint.
On balance, Ridker’s almost psychoanalytic peeling back of layers of time and experience gets to the heart of the family’s dysfunction while creating characters with true depth. I found myself rooting for the Alters to finally turn a little of their altruism on themselves so that, healed, they could make more effective stabs at doing good elsewhere. The warm ending opens up the possibility of a bright future for them, which is precisely what this outstanding debut suggests for its talented author.
Stephen McCauley’s seventh novel, “My Ex-Life,” will be reissued in paperback next month.
By Andrew Ridker
308 pp. Viking. $26.