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.