I grew up in a pretty straight-laced household. We were Catholics, which meant that I felt guilt about, well, anything that might be a sin (stole two dollars from my sister’s piggy bank when we were ten, still feeling that guilt). I made it a personal mission of mine to achieve only the highest marks in school, wouldn’t dream of being sent to the office, and generally avoided anything that resembled trouble (i.e. drugs, alcohol, careless teenage sex). So, you know, a book that is devoted to the saga of two families entwined by a drug deal gone wrong (& decades & decades of drug abuse and general debauchery) sounds like it would be . . . right in the opposite direction of my alley, right?
The Comedown by debut author Rebekah Frumkin features a cast of debased characters who struggle with addiction and generally make some of the shittiest choices known to mankind, meaning that this isn’t a novel I would’ve picked up if the publisher hadn’t sent it to me (& that I initially thought I was probably definitely going to hate it).
I love when authors prove me wrong, y’all.
At the start of the book, there are two family trees featuring the major members of the Bloom-Mittwoch and Marshall families. Each family’s troubles can be traced back to the choices of their patriarchs, Leland Bloom-Mittwoch, Sr., and Reggie Marshall — addict and dealer, respectively. Leland is obsessed with Reggie in a way I can only assume that addicts might be with their dealers — he thinks they’re friends, despite Reggie’s obvious disgust for Leland’s depravity. (The irony here is not lost on me.) One night, Leland witnesses a deal that results in a fired weapons, a couple of cold bodies, and a suitcase that is chock-full of greenbacks. The events of that night forever alter the course of their families, and The Comedown is a fascinating portrayal of the decades that follow.
Each chapter of the novel is devoted to the telling of a family member’s (or close acquaintance’s) personal history. Readers aren’t given a full picture — that would take ages to read through, and besides, would be tedious — but rather, are told a bit about the character’s early years before touching on the present (2009). The result is a novel that is largely character-driven and immensely engrossing. Although it may seem like readers never get a full glimpse at each of the family members and/or friends who comprise the story’s unraveling, I would argue that Frumkin has created marvelously distinct characters in limited portions — snapshots, if you will.
Although I can’t say that I loved any of the characters, I was drawn in by their histories. This isn’t a novel to read so that you can find your next favorite character — most had variously unlikeable qualities and habits that are often cringeworthy, if not appalling. But again, Frumkin somehow makes these overwhelmingly lost individuals somehow worthy of readers’ attention and pity — and that is what I love most about this novel. I’m not going to pretend it’s easy to write a character that everyone loves; but it is far more challenging, in my opinion, to craft a character (or a slew, if you will) that has few redeeming qualities and yet still somehow manages to make readers sit up and pay attention.
Mingled in there with the character portraits we’re given, Frumkin weaves together this absolutely improbable storyline that falls a bit more into place with each character narrative. By the end of the novel, readers will not have been given the complicated story’s outcome in a series of first-this-next-that events; rather, readers will arrive at the conclusion in a yo-yoing manner as the tangled lives of the Mittwoch-Blooms and Marshalls are strategically outlined.
The Good: See above. Basically, I loved Frumkin’s careful construction of characters and the more subtle plot development that occurred as a result of their choices. Also — I know I didn’t talk about this much, but this novel’s sense of setting is solid. The book spans several decades, primarily the 70s-2000s. As I wasn’t born until the near-90s, there was much about the earlier decades that I needed to look up (I had heard of Kent State shootings, but the book made me want to know more) . . . but I’m perfectly fine with abusing Google while reading if the subject matter is intriguing. That it was, Frumkin; that it was.
The Bad: You know, I’m reflecting on this book a week after I finished it, and I can’t say that there’s anything in here I hated. At first, I was a bit put-off by the rampant drug use; but as the plot developed, I found myself shaking my head at the characters’ choices before furiously reading on to discover the next individual in the Mittwoch-Bloom/Marshall saga.
Overall: 4.5 stars. If you love a novel with solid characterization and a strong sense of place, this is the read for you!