“It’s a luscious mix of words and tricks
That let us bet when you know we should fold…”
–The Shins, “Caring is Creepy”
Boy meets girl, boy loses grip on reality, boy punches his sergeant, goes AWOL from Army, hides in a storage space behind girl’s closet in her Georgia home where she keeps him fed and naked, taking comfort in her secreted-away houseguest and their Stockholm syndromic predicament and cozy but off-kilter relationship.
Settling down has never been so unsettling, a notion that – as reiterated in David Zimmerman’s enticing but disquieting Caring is Creepy – suggests the persuasiveness and “luscious mix of words and tricks” seemingly applicable to “the girl” at issue, 15-year-old Lynn Marie Sugrue. In initial league with her comrade-in-harm, her friend Dani, Lynn transforms a persuasive lark of an online chat with the “boy” she meets, a disaffected soldier 10 years her senior named Logan Loy. All in all, it makes for an insidious and deceiving but often sweet summertime ensnarement that is alternatively tangled web and tender trap.
Meanwhile, others “bet when you know we should fold” as an eventful parallel subplot — whose actions speaks as loud as the wordy psychological give and take of the Lynn and Logan saga — constitutes a complement to the two main characters’ interpersonal relationship and their escalating emotional and mental tensions, including Logan’s downward spiral. In havoc-wreaking recklessness, Lynn’s mother, a hospital nurse, has unwittingly gotten mixed up with some shady characters and situations when her boyfriend Hayes doles out some underhanded runarounds and empty promises to some thugish partners in crime. Unfortunately, all escape routes are blocked, and while these developments seem not to touch upon the account of our hostess and her houseguest-turned-hostage, there are troubling implications for Lynn.
Not that these developments and their attendant loose ends – which do ultimately intersect and reconcile in a way when the two storylines dovetail at the book’s expedient but messy end — lead to an entirely satisfactory and neatly-packaged conclusion for Caring is Creepy. After the cohesive and effortlessly seamless narrative of the bulk of the book — one whose free-floating anxiety rivets the reader to the page — there’s a rushed quality in the concluding pages that smacks of hasty afterthoughts and a disjointed denouement. While Zimmerman was at least loosely inspired by a real-life incident, the over-the-top piling on of actions and events — while clearly comprising an embellishment — seems implausibly at-odds and forced within the context of the novel itself.
More impact lies with the vivid characterizations, especially as evoked in the troubling personality transformations of Lynn and Logan as the author subtly alludes to and hints at the underlying mental consequences of each during under-pressure experiences: Lynn and her ostensible power-grab, Logan in his obsequious isolation, irrational contentions, and in such antics as occurred when Lynn came home to find him dancing around wearing a pair of her panties as a party hat.
The unassuming Lynn finds her ever-encompassing need to control and manipulate is as immensely gratifying as her new-found ability to lie and deceive at will and on the spot: She may overtly express concern at her words and deeds at times (“It was scary how easy it was for me to make all this shit up the way I did”) but more nuanced and just as alarming – and yes, creepy – is her paranoia-tinged and telling need to “quick-think” of ways to punish the compliant yet mentally and physically deteriorating Logan in case he ever thought of leaving, let alone make the attempt.
Furthermore Lynn, in addition to lapsing into condescending communications practices (“Oh Logan, my overgrown, naked first-grader”), indulges in making impulsively-blurted falsehoods, as when she tells Logan that he can’t create a hole in the wall for his hole-in-the-wall to help beat the oppressive heat: “You can’t. The window’s nailed shut.”) Or consider the asides that seem to hint at larger concerns – the put-upon Lynn’s declaration that Logan and her mom have “a shared interest in making normal objects very small” makes literal sense in the context used, but there seems to be a curious insinuation about victimization being made here, too.
At the same time that David Zimmerman effectively conveys and instills a sense of concern, he can be counted on throughout Caring is Creepy (his second novel after The Sandbox) to offer more bang-for-your book entertainment value via his way with words and use of language. The narrative is accessible and alternately amusing and poignant, but punchy jabs among the punctuation comes with some colorful metaphors, similes, and jarring but on-target references a reader quickly learns to enjoy and eagerly anticipate: a “puddle of drool shaped like a dog’s head”; a “woman with hair the color of a tongue”; eyes “the color of a driveway oil stain”; such allusions conjure up a David Lynch-like take on suburban ennui and escape in keeping with the skewed mindset of Lynn as the narrator.
One laugh-out-loud assertion comes with a reference to one of the thugish toughs, wh’os given grief after himself giving grief: “Butthole split his head open and all of elementary school fell out.” Forget boy-meets-girl hostage-taking romance — now that’s a wallop-packing piñata whack worthy of anyone’s “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” essay.