Chapter 16
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Ross on the Road

On tour, debut novelist Adam Ross is wowing audiences

July 2, 2010 On Tuesday, in the fourth stop on his book tour in support of Mr. Peanut, Adam Ross landed at the legendary Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi—arguably the Holy Land of Southern Literature—where, according to the store’s blog, he made an unprecedented impression: “Writers have been speaking and reading at Square Books for thirty years, and we’ve heard just about everything, it would seem. But we’d never heard a reading like this. When Mr. Ross finished, a stunned audience sat speechlessly, then broke into loud applause.” The post concluded: “Today it feels, as it shall in days to come, like an ‘I was there’ moment.”

The book’s been out only a week, but already it might be time for reviewers to invest in a thesaurus. Adam Ross’s debut novel, Mr. Peanut, is inspiring the same adjectives again and again: “challenging,” “ingenious,” “brilliant,” “riveting,” and the surprisingly recurrent “audacious.”

Writing in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani first deployed the A word the very day the novel launched, noting “the rich and variegated gifts of this audacious new writer.” Then Allison Gillmor followed suit on Saturday in the Winnipeg Free Press, calling Mr. Peanut Ross’s “audaciously assured first novel”. On Sunday Scott Turow, writing in The New York Times Book Review, unleashed a veritable torrent of superlatives: “daring,” “arresting,” “forceful,” “involving,” “stirring,” “original,” “harrowing,” “bleakly convincing,” “unflinching,” and “mesmerizing.” Oh, and also: “audacious.”

Turow’s front-page rave, is the kind of review most debut novelists wouldn’t even let themselves dream about. It starts off calling the novel “an enormous success—forceful and involving, often deeply stirring and always impressively original” and ends by upping the praise even more: “This is a brilliant, powerful, memorable book.” Turow was also the first reviewer to get the cautious optimism of the book’s take on marriage: “It is only because of the book’s unflinching honesty about the perils of marriage that we can celebrate and credit the hope it eventually offers,” Turow writes. “All three husbands ultimately recognize a pathway to marital happiness. ‘If he could feel her want,’ one reasons, ‘if he could prove to her that he’d always be there to feel it, then they’d be complete.’ It is no small thing that Ross has dedicated this novel to his wife.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly with so complex a book, critics have engaged in a lively debate about virtually every aspect of the novel, in some cases citing the same example to make exactly the opposite point. Turow calls the long set piece featuring Sam Sheppard, for example, the “high point” of the novel, and The Guardian’s Christopher Taylor concurs: “Ross makes a moving drama out of this unsolvable case in a way that mirrors not only the larger novel’s complicated time scheme but also the tragic ironies of the other relationships under scrutiny.” Daniel Mendohlson, writing in The New Yorker (no link available), goes both Turow and Taylor one better: “With tremendous emotional sympathy … Ross has shaped the facts of the Sheppard case into a psychologically acute and structurally coherent novella—a true American tragedy in which love reawakens too late.” Meanwhile, cranky Alexander Theroux, writing for The Wall Street Journal, dismisses the whole Sheppard section as the “capstone of Mr. Ross’s self-indulgence.”

But it’s the novel’s looping narrative structure which has generated the greatest conflict. Some critics—and Turow is at the top of this list—laud an original if challenging architecture that slyly underscores the themes of the book while simultaneously providing the page-turning momentum of a thriller. Consider this review in IndieBound: “Like the Escher drawings that inspire the computer games David designs for a living, these complex, interlocking dramas are structurally and emotionally intense, subtle, and intriguing.” But as Kakutani sees it, “Ross has ended up not with a jigsaw picture that clicks weirdly and perfectly together, but rather with a heap of mirror fragments lying jumbled together.”

On Ross himself, however, there’s a near-universal critical consensus: the guy is a brilliant prose stylist, and Mr. Peanut is Ross’s opening salvo in a professional war on narrative complacency, timid ideas, and unspoken assumptions. As Christopher Taylor concludes in his Guardian review, “His decision to give the book all he’s got and more (he started writing it in 1995) doesn’t make for an elegant structure, but does make it an effective calling card. Ross’s range is the main thing it highlights: he’s equally at home riffing wittily on Manhattan sauna etiquette, inhabiting the consciousness of a neglected 50s trophy wife, adding a touch of humour to snappy noir pastiche, and describing an illicit affair with controlled eroticism. The story collection he’s working on should really be something.”

Look for Ladies and Gentlemen from Knopf next summer.

Additional coverage of Mr. Peanut:

~Chapter 16’s review of Mr. Peanut;

~Chapter 16’s Q&A with Adam Ross;

~the Nashville Scene‘s cover story on Mr. Peanut;

~an interview with Adam Ross on National Public Radio;

~an interview with Adam Ross in The New York Times;

~a review in The Daily Best;

~a review in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review;

~a review in The Houston Chronicle

~Jillian Quint’s review in BookPage;

~Adam Ross’s When We Fell In Love essay for Three Guys One Book;

~a notice in USA Today;

~an interview with Adam Ross at Powell’s;

~a film clip of Adam Ross, child actor, in The Seduction of Joe Tynan;

~Leah Carpenter’s review at Big Think;

~a blog post on Adam Ross’s reading at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi;

~review of Mr. Peanut in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune;

~a review in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a city where a large section of the novel takes place;

~a review at;

~a review in the Edmonton Journal;

~a review in the The Kansas City Star and other newspapers served by the McClatchy syndicate;

~a review in The Dallas Morning News;

~an interview with Charlie Rose;

~an interview with Stephen Usery of BookTalk;

~an interview with Leonard Lopate;

~a mention on The Daily Beast’s Buzz Board;

~a recommendation by Candace Bergen;

~a post in the Incredible Hulk’s Twitter feed;

~a note in The New Yorker;

~a review in The Guardian;

~a review in The Philadelphia Inquirer;

~a response in Slate from Adam Ross to Hanna Rosin’s claim that Mr. Peanut represents marriage as “a kind of prison”;

~an interview with Ed Champion of the Bat Segundo Show;

~a discussion; of Mr. Peanut by Emily Bazelon, Hanna Rosin, and Margaret Talbot on Slate’s DoubleX Audio Book Club

~The Center for Fiction’s short list for The 2010 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize;

~a review in The Economist;

~ an interview on the Book Lady’s blog.

Please check back for additional links as they become available. This page, originally posted on June 29, 2010, as “A is for Audacious,” will be updated daily.