The Reason You’re Alive by Matthew Quick
This gem of a novel came out of nowhere and landed on my desk, and I’m glad.
Vietnam War veteran, David Granger is 68 and has just had his twin removed from his brain, literally. Poor David was said to have absorbed his unfortunate sibling and no one knew. David reckons that this was the first kill he ever made but certainly not the last.
He is having difficulties with his son, Hank, and especially Hank’s Dutch wife, Femke, who David has considered killing… possibly. But it is his 7 year old grand-daughter, Ella, who manages to keep David from going completely rogue in a society that he no longer feels part of. Ella is his anchor as he struggles with life after the operation.
His wife, Jessica, took her own life after a lifetime of suffering from depression. Jessica was a great artist who refused to show her work. When she died she took her work with her leaving David and Hank with many unresolved issues. She was David’s one love and he is unable to move on with his bedraggled life as society seems to be leaving him behind.
There is also, of course, the small matter of Clayton Fire Bear, the large and aggressive First Nations soldier who David mistreated in ‘Nam and who has vowed revenge. Throw in Sue, David’s ‘genetically Vietnamese‘ friend who he describes as having ‘stuck out her little yellow hand‘ upon first meeting him, Gay Timmy and his husband, Gay Johnny, who are firm if unlikely friends of David, and a host of other characters who will raise an eyebrow or two, and you have the makings of a very entertaining and politically incorrect story.
And this novel is politically incorrect. It is super-charged un-p.c. It is the equivalent of taking Harvey Weinstein and placing him in a meeting of hungry feminists. OK, it’s not quite that bad but you get the idea. Yet it works.
There are so many inappropriate remarks made by David throughout this tale that I scarcely know where to begin. He inadvertently insults just about everyone he meets with the exception of Ella. Yet David has friends who he is supportive of and loyal to. He uses homophobic language but has two close gay friends. He uses sexist language but will help any woman who needs it. He appears to be racist towards Vietnamese but adores Sue. He also hates the French and Dutch but doesn’t really have the chance to make friends with any of them, and he uses the most foul insults towards Femke, yet she does not elicit sympathy. David is also revealed as a selfless man who has done a lot of good in his complex and chaotic life. The circumstances of his marriage to Jessica are very heart-warming and help to provide a touching denouement.
In short, David Granger, the former US soldier is not what he at first seems. And there lies the beauty of this story. Matthew Quick has manages to take someone who we should despise for his neanderthal ways and he makes him, not only amusing, but likeable. David is very funny without meaning to be. His antiquated attitudes are so over the top rude and out of place in today’s world that he will make you laugh and then make you wonder if you should.
I do wonder if the creation of David is a convenient mechanism for introducing wholly inappropriate language into a novel whilst making it acceptable. Regardless, and I will give the author the benefit of the doubt on this, David’s approach is a reminder that those who use racist language are not necessarily racist. Those who speaks of homosexuals in a gruff manner are not necessarily homophobic. The language is not what makes the person terrible (although that’s not to excuse such language), it’s the intent. And David’s intent is not all bad. He’s a dinosaur living in a society where his kind are all but extinct. Rebel Voice has touched upon this topic in the Social Commentary section under the heading ‘In Search Of Racism And Racists.’
Upon seeing his son, Hank, David had this to say, ‘And he had styled his hair with gel so that he looked like a homo sailor from the fifties.’
Upon first seeing Sue at the spinning class run by his friend, Gay Timmy, he said this, ‘There was this little Vietnamese broad… sweating up a goddamn rice-paddy monsoon. The fish sauce smell had to be coming through her pores, no doubt.’ As it happened, the fish sauce smell wasn’t coming from Sue but from someone else (not from Vietnam).
Upon being introduced to Sue, then, by Gay Timmy, David tells her, ‘You smell surprizingly nice.‘ But Gay Timmy was not impressed. “Surprizingly’, Timmy said, in a way that let me know that I had violated one of his many secret homo rules.’
Sue becomes so fond of David that he becomes her surrogate father, and she takes the role of the daughter that he never had. They make for a very unusual pair, but it works.
David, though, just doesn’t know when to stop. On seeing a black man’s bedroom he comments, ‘He had a nice king-size bed that was very normal looking. No leopard-skin blankets or black fists on the walls or red-green-and-black African cutouts…‘ Yet the black man in question, Big T, idolizes David and credits him for helping him to find a good job. David, in turn, thinks very highly of Big T. Their chemistry works.
On the cologne of his good friend, and also a veteran, Frank, David has this to say, ‘It smelled like a goat had eaten a bowl of potpourri and then pissed into a spray bottle…‘ It is this crude and coarse commentary that had me laughing at David Granger, the US patriot with a good heart and a very large arsenal of weapons. I can imagine David insulting Irish people and making us laugh at him. Thankfully, we’re not that sensitive here about most things (except the Famine, stay away from the Famine. It wasn’t funny then and isn’t funny now) and I happen to personally know more than one Irish version of David Granger, so perhaps I’m biased in my review of this book.
Cleverly, Matthew Quick uses the character of David to insert relevant and topical comments upon modern US society. For example, David is Republican and relates how Abraham Lincoln was also Republican. He points out that it was the Republicans who freed the slaves. He also condemns the policy of allowing large numbers of immigrants into the US whilst the black community are still being marginalized. In this he makes a fair point for discussion. There are many examples of this throughout the tale and it is all the more interesting for it. We may not agree with his viewpoints but at least he gets us thinking about the issues.
David is always on a mission. In Vietnam he was given instructions and he carried them out. He did bad things there, very bad things, some of which no one could expect forgiveness for. These incidents are mentioned but quickly glossed over in what seems to be an attempt to keep the reader on track with viewing David as someone who is capable of redemption. He certainly gives us the idea that he is basically a good person covered in layers of impropriety. Yet, his actions in Vietnam are of the kind that could not and should not be forgotten. I would not be impressed with this single aspect of the story. It deserved more attention, or perhaps should have been omitted altogether to better shape our view of the hapless David.
David has a mission to return a stolen item to Clayton Fire Bear, but is unsure of how that individual will receive him after all this time. The First Nation’s people do get a very sympathetic rendering in David’s mind, as do the black community. Uncle Sam does not. David is a patriot but not blind to what those in governance of the US are dong and have done. He feels that he is a victim of their malevolent actions as are the people of Vietnam, the slaves taken from Africa, the First Nations people who suffered genocide, and the gay community. David, strangely, becomes a voice for today’s world in the mouth of a cantankerous old bastard who doesn’t really want to be liked, except by Ella.
All-in-all, this is a beautifully constructed, and written, novel that will make you stay with it until it is all-too-quickly gone. You may not entirely appreciate David Granger for who he is, but you might like him for the good that he has done. If nothing else, he is humble; a man with a soft(ish) centre wrapped in barbed wire… and poisoned spikes… with sharpened blades protruding and grenades hanging out of his every orifice. Take a chance, you might love him.
Sult scale rating: 8.5 out of 10. Highly recommended for the humour, the commentary, and the allegorical content.