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Long Island Compromise by Taffy Brodesser-Akner review – an old-fashioned maximalist rush of storytelling

Long Island Compromise by Taffy Brodesser-Akner review – an old-fashioned maximalist rush of storytelling

“Do you want to hear a story with a terrible ending?” opens Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s second novel, irresistibly. Sure we do! She is, after all, the laureate of upended lives, as her smash-hit 2019 debut Fleishman Is in Trouble showed.

There follows a 30-page account – inspired by real events but twisted into fictional counterparts – of the abduction in 1980 of the “kidnappably rich” Carl Fletcher, patriarch of one of the wealthiest families on Long Island. (The family’s money comes from a packaging factory they own in the prosperous town of Middle Rock.) A kidnapping is a story that comes with inbuilt tension (“We have your Zionist scum husband”) and colour, as the locals are rendered “speechless” by the news – though “none of them could stop talking about it”.

Carl survives his ordeal, so where’s the terrible ending? Like revenge, some things are best served cold, and the bulk of this chunky book goes down a generation to the children of Carl and his wife, Ruth. Each of them – Nathan, Bernard, AKA Beamer, and Jenny – gets a sustained run of a hundred or so pages for their own story: the collected turmoils and travails of the Fletcher clan. Brodesser-Akner’s thinking seems to be: the family members have been cushioned by their money from many of the knocks the rest of us suffer, so why not have a little fun with them?

Beamer’s story is the most outlandish. We meet him in the middle of one of his regular “drug-fuelled orgies with sex workers”, where he re-enacts his father’s kidnapping. There, he assuages his need for pain by “getting anally penetrated by toothless women” and tops up his appetite for humiliation by fretting about why his screenplay-writing career has gone south, despite the fact that his latest script “even meets diversity checklists! If you add Jews to them!”. Could it be because all his film pitches are about kidnappings? He also thinks his wife, Noelle, is going to leave him, but he’s not sure – he’s Jewish, she’s Presbyterian, and “her ancestors had left their ability to share their feelings on the Mayflower”. He also develops a very funny obsession with the actor Mandy Patinkin.

His brother, Nathan, is quieter, working – despite the family money meaning he doesn’t need to – as a lawyer, but without much ambition. Like Beamer, he discovers that “they don’t tell you how long the tail is on self-destruction – how you could self-destruct over and over and for so, so long without even coming close to the end” – though Nathan’s is via a desire to please everyone at the same time and not just himself. Then it’s sister Jenny’s turn, though by now we’re running into diminishing returns, as Brodesser-Akner’s energy for writing about campus union politics is much lower than it is for Beamer’s kinks or Nathan’s bribes. But after each of the Fletcher children reaches a nadir, we return for the last stretch of the novel to the family as a whole, including Carl – remember him? – who has discovered that, after the trauma of his kidnapping, “there was no treatment. How do you treat what is now called your life?”.

There’s a lip-smacking relish to the way Brodesser-Akner delivers devastation on her luckless characters, and the slow, inevitable flow of failure, where the character can only watch but is powerless to stop it. She is very good, too, on mother Ruth trying to hold the family together, which comes as a relief, since, otherwise, as with Fleishman, the men get the lion’s share of the pages. And we do get the terrible ending we were promised.

One reason Beamer’s latest script is unsuccessful, one character tells him, is that it’s “not really of the time”, and the same could be said for Long Island Compromise. It’s out of step with literary trends, but there’s clearly an appetite for this sort of old-fashioned maximalist rush of storytelling, as we see from the success of Fleishman, not to mention recent novels by Nathan Hill and Jonathan Franzen. The reader sinks into it, submissively, and enjoys the show. This is not fiction that is efficient and controlled, containing only what’s necessary. It’s too much at times – do we need a diversion every time a new character appears? – but sometimes too much is just right.

  • Long Island Compromise by Taffy Brodesser-Akner is published by Wildfire (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Source: theguardian.com