Adam Ross, Mr. Peanut

Widely buzzed as one of the summer’s must-read novels, the debut by Nashville’s Adam Ross is a grisly look at death, marriage, and obsession, told through the prism of three failed husbands: a murder suspect and the two detectives on his case. (Can you guess who the victim is?) It makes several nods to M.C. Escher and Alfred Hitchcock, but where those two are controlled and precise, Mr. Peanut is scattered, even sloppy. There are a handful of gripping moments to be found here; unfortunately, they’re part of an overall landscape that’s fundamentally misshapen.

The initial thrust of the book concerns video-game designer David Pepin and his obese wife, Alice. Pepin finds himself daydreaming about his wife’s demise with greater and greater regularity—but not because of her weight, and not because of her inability to have children. Just because. Marriage, Ross suggests, is itself “a long double homicide”.

As soon as Pepin winds up in the interrogation room, however, following Alice’s actual murder, the novel makes its first major U-turn. Ross leaves the reader dangling as to Pepin’s guilt and proceeds to give us three long variations on the story of the neglectful husband. For Pepin and the two detectives—one of whom is the real-life Sam Sheppard, falsely convicted of murdering his wife in the 1950s—spouses are grievances, best ignored and cheated on, until drastic and often violent circumstances force the men to see the error of their ways.

There are several problems here. Despite real suspense in the present, 90 percent of the book occurs in flashback; Sheppard’s back story alone takes up more than 100 pages. The three competing narratives constantly jostle for attention, stepping on one another’s toes. And for the novel’s convoluted time line to work, Sheppard would have to be in his mid-80s at the time of Pepin’s arrest—less than plausible.

As for the writing itself, it ranges from the quite good (the sky above the clouds is a “great glacial meringue as pristine as a ceiling”) to the very bad (“Hannah, deep into her second trimester, gave off body heat like an oven, was an oven, and it was baking their loaf of love”).

Some of the scenes are quite vivid, and appropriately haunting; Alice’s bloody miscarriage on a plane comes reluctantly to mind. They just don’t add up to much. Perhaps on his next outing Ross should ditch Escher and his Möbius strips and instead focus on straight lines—A to B, that kind of thing.

HarperCollins, 352 pp, $32.99, hardcover

(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, August 5, 2010)

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