First time novels can be a crapshoot. You might be getting the early work of a major artist still learning his craft. You might be getting a book with minimal promise that some editor feels needs to be nurtured at your expense. You might be getting Catch-22 or The Naked and the Dead. It's often worth the gamble; you never know when you'll get lucky.
Drew Perry's first novel, This is Just Exactly Like You, is worth the gamble. It may not be the multi-million dollar jackpot winner, but it will get you a nice piece of change on one of those ubiquitous scratch off cards. Enough with the gambling conceit: Perry's novel is finely tuned character study and a compelling read which deserves all the attention it gets.
When This is Just Exactly Like You begins Jack Lang's life is in chaos. His wife, Beth, has left him and moved in with his best friend because, acting on impulse, he has bought a second house across from the one they now own. She has had it with his impulsive actions, and leaves him alone to care for their six year old autistic son, Hendrick. This is the beginning; things only get more chaotic as the story progresses and the best friend's girl friend, who also happens to be one of Beth's friends and colleagues, shows up at Jack's front door with a couple of bottles of red wine. The friend, who also happens to be in business with Jack, nearly amputates his leg with a chain saw. Hendrick begins to show some improving signs of behavior. Jack buys a set of massive fiberglass aquatic figures from a defunct miniature golf course which he eventually decides to use to decorate a concrete tricycle path he plans to build in the back yard of his new house. It is a series of events that promises catastrophe, and it is a promise fulfilled with wild black humor.
The story is told from Jack's point of view. We see everything through his eyes and thus there is a certain sympathy for his situation. He can't understand how Beth could have gone off to stay with his best friend, of all people, and neither can we. We see the goofy things he does from his perspective. We see his good intentions, his lack of malice. His actions are spontaneous. He acts out of instinct with little thought of consequences. He sees in Beth someone who is compulsive about planning for any and all consequences, a woman who is incapable of spontaneity. As a couple they would seem to illustrate that old canard about opposites attracting. Jack is unconventional. He does wild things on the spur of the moment. Beth is conventional, steady. She wants what she feels is normal.
Jack starts things he doesn't finish, a kitchen renovation, a tile flooring project. Beth wants him to have a finished kitchen, a fully tiled floor. What she wants is certainly not unreasonable, unless you are looking at her through Jack's eyes.
Jack is not the most reliable of narrators, not that he is not telling the truth; he is unreliable in that he has no real understanding of what he does or why he does it. He is as unaware of his motivations as his autistic son is about the compulsive behaviors that form the rituals of his daily life. Jack's purchase of a group of giant fiberglass sea creatures is as inexplicable as Hendrick's repetition of the local weather reports. Ask Jack why he does these things and he can no more explain, than could the autistic boy. From the outside his actions may look inspired and imaginative, inspired and imaginative they may be as long as you don't have to live with them. In some sense, life with Jack might be as difficult for some as life with Hendrick, but because he feels little guilt about himself, it becomes possible for the reader to overlook his failures.
And the nice thing for readers is that we don't have to live with him. We can enjoy his erratic impulsivity. We can smile at his cluelessness about the effects of his acts. We can sympathize with the difficulties of his life and the relative good humor with which he deals with them. But in the end, some distinction has to be made between inspired imagination and careless irresponsibility. Perry has managed to create in Jack Lang the kind of original a reader can admire in the pages of a novel—a Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, a builder of a "Backyard Sidewalk Tricycle Racetrack" for a child who refuses to ride on his Big Wheel. Living with a Don Quixote, on the other hand, might well drive the conventional among us out of the house. Perry allows us to experience a true original without having to suffer any of the consequences, one of the nicer aspects of the literary experience.