Vladimir Nabokov was fond of telling tales through the introspection of monsters. Sociopaths, kidnappers, killers, child molesters: he gave them human voices, explained their sides of the story.
While the characters in Noah Hawley's The Punch are not monsters on the scale of Hermann or Humbert, their actions are similarly unsympathetic and in need of explanation. That emotionally abusive, alcoholic mother? She’s still reeling from childhood abandonment. That philandering husband who’s juggling two wives and four children? Despite all his material success, there’s a persistent, gnawing emptiness he can’t seem to escape.
Like Nabokov’s monsters, Hawley’s characters still come off as being pretty low. They win some sympathy, but their actions are hard to excuse. Plenty of people experience emotional pain and feelings of hopelessness without projecting their demons onto everyone they love.
The Punch opens in a New York City emergency room on Valentine’s Day. Two thirty-something men sit side by side, both bleeding and broken from a punch. The punch. That’s all we know for now.
The rest of the book describes the events leading up to the punch. To begin with, the broken men are David and Scott. Their father, Joe, has recently succumbed to any one of several ailments, including lung cancer and multiple organ failure. Joe’s memorial service has brought the scattered family together, to New York.
Then there’s Doris, the widow. She’s our emotionally abusive alcoholic, only a few years behind her late husband in terms of physical decline. Her sons practically flip a coin to decide who will spend time with her from moment to moment. Nothing is good enough for Doris. Everything is a hassle. She’s unhappy, and too self-absorbed not to take it out on everyone around her.
The narrative unfolds at times through Doris’s eyes, at times through David’s or Scott’s. The mechanism allows Hawley to explore the emotional wounds that shed light on the characters' untoward behavior.
Doris’s mother abandoned her in childhood in order to please her new husband. She was raised by her aunt, while her mother bore two new daughters and raised them as Doris's “cousins.” The experience has darkened all of Doris's subsequent interactions with the world, which she views as dangerous and malicious.
Scott, the youngest son, is 35 and has yet to “find” himself. He has a dissatisfying job and a habit of falling for complicated, unstable women who inevitably leave his heart in shambles. He harbors deep resentment for his brother, a successful sales rep with a beautiful family and a manicured lawn in suburban Los Angeles.
David, at 37, rebelled against his family’s dysfunction by amassing as much material success as possible. But he has to work hard convince himself that he’s happy. Somewhere along the way, and he’s not quite sure how this happened, he’s managed to marry someone else. That’s right, a second wife, complete with a new baby. In New York. Where he is right now, with his first family, who has no idea about any of this. I think you know where this is heading.
Faced with the reality of Joe’s demise, the protagonists grapple with their scars and their memories, their respective spots in the universe, and their dreams for the future, which range from painfully cynical to even more painfully idealistic. They grasp for hope, for closure, and for joy. Not coincidentally, Joy is also the name of David’s second wife.
All of the pain, all of the resentment and vexatious memories and desperate anger, culminate in the punch. And only after the punch does the healing begin. It is only in the epilogue that the story’s mood takes an optimistic turn. Even then, it’s the grim sort of optimism that comes only from hitting one’s lowest point, and finding no choice but to forge ahead.
This is a wonderful book, the writing fluid and effortless. Themes of faith, other unsubstantiated beliefs, and time's true nature are woven expertly throughout. It is often depressing, and often infuriating, as you find yourself screaming warnings at one self-destructive character or another. But it is also an exploration of the relationship between pain and regeneration, as well as a mandate to expunge bitterness in favor of chasing, and embracing, vitality.