“On June 15, 2010 a comet…will impact the Earth with the explosive energy of 283,824,000 Hiroshima bombs.” So cautions a voice to Junior Thibodeau shortly before he is cut from his mother’s abdomen to avoid his certain death by a wrapped umbilical.
This doomsday pronouncement comes only after the voice also advises him: “Soon you will have to take in food and dispose of your own waste…you must learn to run, share, swing a bat and hold a pencil, love, weep, read, tie your shoelaces, bathe, and die.” In Ron Currie Jr’s first novel “Everything Matters,” the big questions are there even before you are born and never go away.
Tackling those big questions, in Currie’s case, means breaking from more traditional narrative fiction to open with a vaguely defined omniscient voice (God?) giving his advice in numbered paragraphs then seguing into various first person accounts of life’s complications by Junior, his brother Rodney, his mother and father, and his on again off again girlfriend Amy. Always, of course, the voice returns (God is everywhere?) predicting Junior’s future. But what might come across as precious or annoying, in fact, works remarkably in this plot full of tangents and sidetracks.
Junior grows up in a small town in Maine, but carries the burden of genius compounded by a fatalistic knowledge of the future. His delinquent brother Rodney has inherited his father’s baseball talent, which is the only thing that saves him when he overdoses on his uncle’s cocaine supply, and brings him the security of a lucrative contract with the Cubs. Rodney’s mansion in Chicago becomes a haven for Junior, but not haven enough since Junior is burdened with the foreknowledge of the exact time and day the world will end.
The question Currie explores is hardly new: What’s the point? Does anything we do really matter? His answer, as the somewhat hokey title suggests, is that “Everything Matters!” But the answer is not obvious, and so we find his novel wandering off in all directions looking for clues as he passes through The Vietnam War, alcoholism, a terrorist attack on a federal building, mental retardation, covert government agencies, a cure for cancer, and finally a sort of deux ex machina spaceship escape for the lucky few to a star named Gliese 689 d.
Remarkably, all these disparate paths actually hang together because of the skill with which Currie manages the structure, characters, and voices. If it appears that this first novel may be born of too many graduate writing courses, be assured that Currie apparently never made much of a dent in undergraduate work. He writes on blank paper. For this reason some of the details of things that matter are more heartwarming than “literary.”
When Junior goes to Fenway to see his brother play for the Cubs, Currie finds the same joy so many have found: “Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with my father and eating hot dogs together…the narrow concrete walls open onto the wide, wonderful panorama of grass and sky…for ballparks are America’s cathedrals, and Fenway is Notre Dame.”
Although Junior’s journey is the anchor, the other characters are essential to Currie’s overall vision, and “Everything Matters!” is very much a visionary novel.
When we see his brother Rodney step up to the batter’s box as if nothing in the world exists but a little ball spinning in front of him at 95 mph, we know why baseball matters. When Amy drives Junior cross-country for the last time, she mourns the simple landscapes of Nebraska where “here for the last time are the emerald acres of soybeans, the phantom stink of hog farms, the golden dome.” The Midwest matters.
My favorite character is Junior’s father John Sr. who works two jobs and fights off cancer to do his best to hold his family together. “People make mistakes, of course, drink too much, say things they don’t mean, spend money they don’t have…I’ve done all these things, give or take, myself,” he says. “but there are pleasures that I enjoy, in my way, and never pass up. Smoking a cigarette and watching the sky outside the bakery go from black to pink to blue every morning. Falling asleep over the morning newspaper. Taking two days off, in the fall, to split wood with Rodney. These times are not lost on me. I am here.”
Some novels have a unique stylistic form and others a unique spirit. Ron Currie, Jr. has written one with both because he is, at heart, a storyteller with ideas, humor, and the determination to say “I am here.”