The premise of Julia Claiborne Johnson’s debut novel, Be Frank With Me, sounds like a winning Hollywood pitch. M.M. Banning, a reclusive author who’s published nothing since achieving phenomenal success in the 1970s, is forced to write again when she loses her fortune to a Bernie Madoff-style swindler. She assures her publishers that she can produce new work, but only if they send her an assistant to look after her nine-year-old son. At the writer’s Bel Air compound, the amanuensis discovers that the child in question is no ordinary knuckle-headed kid; he’s a temperamental genius with a penchant for historical trivia who dresses like Cary Grant and flies into a masochistic rage whenever he’s touched. A young Macaulay Culkin would have killed in this role.
Johnson—who grew up in Shelbyville, Tennessee, south of Nashville—tells the story through the assistant, Alice Whitley, a twenty-four-year-old accountant who stumbled into the world of New York publishing. Alice adores The Pitcher, the novel that made M.M. Banning famous, but nothing in her experience prepares her for the reality of Mimi Gillespie (the author’s real name) or her incorrigible son. Young Frank dresses like Fred Astaire, complete with cuff links and pocket squares, and possesses an uncanny memory for arcane trivia, particularly regarding the cinema. Already set apart from classmates by his unusual sartorial taste, Frank further ostracizes himself with tantrums that confound his teachers.
Alice’s voice is self-effacing and light-hearted, quick with one-liners and deft with subtle humor about her charge’s idiosyncrasies. She wonders if Frank “stumbled into our century through a wormhole in the space-time continuum” and describes him as “a grade-school Charlie Chaplin who’d misplaced his hat, shoes, and cane.” But the novel’s funniest bits come in dialogue with Frank, during which Alice plays the role of straight man. One of Frank’s rants includes tidbits about the history of horses in North America, reintroduced by the Spanish conquistadors. Native Americans enjoyed the horses, he says, until they realized their “downside”:
“What’s the downside of horses?”
“The Spanish conquistadors.”
“That’s funny,” I said.
“What you just said.”
“I thought you were going to tell me something else about horses. I didn’t see ‘the Spanish conquistadors’ coming.”
“Neither did the Native Americans.”
From the start, Mimi makes Alice’s job description disturbingly clear: “Rule One: No touching Frank’s things. Rule Two: No touching Frank.” After a traumatic experience with a waffle iron, Alice learns that “Frank’s things” are spread all over the house and she’s better erring way on the side of caution. As the “Half-Pint E.F. Hutton” begins to trust her, though, Alice perceives that Frank’s boundaries are not so absolute. Still, Be Frank With Me never turns into a Miracle Worker¬-style story of educating a challenging student; instead, it explores how characters with widely different personalities break through barriers to communication and deepen the range of their human sympathies. All novels should do as much.
Frank’s histrionics and clumsiness and fascination with classic movies would make for mere slapstick fun if he were in better physical control. But his ungainliness and impatience combine for frequent accidents, forcing a beleaguered Alice to stay on her toes at all times. For a comic novel with quirky-lovable characters, Be Frank With Me is filled with menace, sharp objects, and cryptic threat. In the book’s prologue, Alice reveals that the Bel Air mansion has been destroyed by fire. How it starts and whom it harms are questions that lurk in the novel’s background.
If Alice were merely a passive observer, Johnson’s novel would be less engaging. Fortunately, Alice chooses to act, if not always wisely (though what good fictional hero ever does?). She attempts to curb Frank’s anti-social behavior and encourages him to communicate more amicably with outsiders. And with Mimi, Alice turns sleuth to determine if the typewriter clatter she hears from Mimi’s closed office is producing a manuscript, or anything at all.
Though Frank has worked with a psychiatrist for years, no diagnosis is attached to him; his condition remains simply an element of his personality. Readers may find themselves trying to identify his disorder, but in the end Frank doesn’t fit neatly into a category. Alice, Mimi, and Frank have the quality found in the best characters in literature or film: the audience cares about them and roots for their stories to end happily.
Sean Kinch grew up in Austin and attended Stanford University. He earned a Ph.D. in modern fiction from the University of Texas. He now teaches English at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville.