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BOOK REVIEW

'Everything Matters!' by Ron Currie Jr.

In the face of the apocalypse, the novel's unhappy characters find salvation in the awareness of what makes life worth living.

July 31, 2009|Diana Wagman

What would you do if you knew the world was coming to an end? What if you were the only person who knew it, and you knew it irrefutably and without any hope of deliverance? Would you tell anyone? How would you live your life?

Junior, the protagonist of Ron Currie Jr.'s superb novel "Everything Matters!," is 3 when he receives a prophecy from the television: The world will end in 36 years. Junior is already a special child. Beginning in utero, he has had an unassailable voice in his head that tells him things no baby or toddler can know. Now this voice corroborates. The obliteration of the planet is inevitable. From that moment on, understandably, Junior is not a happy child.

Not that there is much to be happy about. His mother is an alcoholic. His brother is a baseball phenom permanently brain-damaged from a childhood cocaine problem. His girlfriend's mother abuses her. His father was severely damaged in the Vietnam War. And the voice in his head won't shut up. It tells him things he would rather not know.

Currie's first book, "God Is Dead," is a collection of stories linked by the premise that God is, in fact, really truly dead, having expired in the form of a starving Sudanese woman, powerless even to help herself. The stories are dark and disturbing and hilarious. Obviously, Currie is at home with the apocalypse.

In "Everything Matters!," he romps through the bleakest of landscapes. Cancer. Addiction. Stardom. Torture. Abuse. Secret and all-knowing government agencies. Flesh-eating disease. Suicide and terrorism.

Like his earlier work, this is a comedy, albeit a scary one. Some scenes make you laugh out loud. There are passages of beauty and wicked turns of phrase.

The novel is violent and disgusting, then sweet and romantic. It is carefully sentimental, never becoming maudlin. Occasionally, Currie runs into problems: A chapter narrated by Junior's girlfriend, Amy, sounds too much like Junior. And at the end, there is one too many extraordinarily precocious kid.

But these are minor quibbles when, marvelously, Currie suffuses his unhappy and disparate characters with salvation -- not in a post-death heaven of harp playing and endless ice cream, but in the awareness right here on Earth of what makes life worth living.

It's no accident that Amy has a dog named Camus. The question Albert Camus poses in his philosophical essay "The Myth of Sisyphus" resides at the heart of this book. What is the point of living if death is the inevitable conclusion? Doesn't that render life absurd?

Junior's father emerges as Sisyphus, pushing the same boulder up the same hill every day at his two jobs, barely making ends meet, having given up his dreams for his family. He is not a saint, but he cannot stand the way his co-workers complain.

"Maybe what really bothers me," he explains, "is that guys like Dan never own up to their mistakes, never accept their lives as they are today, with all the accumulated blunders that brought them to this place and time. In some fundamental way they are not really here. They're in a past that never really existed, or a future that never will exist, even while their bodies are in the present, in this warehouse, loading real packages onto real semis, with real wives and children at home, and very real opportunities for small but meaningful pleasures all around them. Pleasures that I enjoy, in my way, and never pass up."

That passage comes early in the book, but its strength becomes more apparent as things progress. It is this unflagging endurance, this loyalty and determination that frames the answer to Camus' question. Yes, the boulder rolls back down every night, but what would he do without it?

There is something messy and masculine and American about "Everything Matters!" The changes in style from chapter to chapter, the matter-of-fact violence, the small-town life juxtaposed with fame and wealth, even the way the government knows all and is able to save the day at the last moment spring from our unique combination of optimism and expansion and inclusiveness.

Junior's final act of heroism is reminiscent of that most American of games, baseball. It is an individual moment, a personal best, a grand slam that ends up benefiting the team and the entire stadium, that makes us all better because of what he did alone.

Total annihilation of the planet or not, the end of the world will happen for each of us eventually. Remarkably, Currie makes Armageddon a happy ending by reminding us that everything does matter indeed.

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Wagman is the author of the novels "Skin Deep," "Spontaneous" and "Bump."

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