Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

"A" is for Audacious

Debut novelist Adam Ross has the critics talking

June 29, 2010 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.” On the other hand, cranky Alexander Theroux, writing for The Wall Street Journal, calls the Sheppard section 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.

Please check back for additional links as they become available. This page will be updated daily.