The picture on the cover of This Is Just Exactly Like You (Viking, $25.95, 352 p.) is of a suburban back yard, where what looks like a five-foot-high statue of an upright chipmunk (or is it a gopher?) stands dead center at the end of a cement pathway that ends in an arrow. It has the cheerful inscrutability of a found photo, and undoubtedly makes sense only to the person who lost it.
Greensboro, North Carolina, native Drew Perry offers a possible interpretation in his deadpan, uproariously funny first novel about a young couple whose marriage has collapsed. Whether it’s because of a kitchen remodel gone bad, or the fallout from dealing with their autistic child, husband and father Jack Lang is on a mission: There’s something out there that will fix things, but only he will know what it is, and he won’t recognize it until he sees it.
Along for the ride are Jack’s two employees: the beer-guzzling Butner, who runs Jack’s company, Patriot Tree & Mulch; and Ernesto, a nurseryman who can “bring anything back to life.” After Jack’s wife, Beth, leaves him, they agreeably default to “Big Lebowski”-style babysitters for six-year-old Hendrick, who communicates through a litany of televised weather reports and commercials for life insurance and used-car lots.
Beth has pursued every possible channel with Hendrick—therapy, medication, diet, an exhausting daily routine of safety and preventative measures. She and Jack have read all the books and sought advice from countless “Beanbags,” his name for the experts that decide where Hendrick falls “on the spectrum” of autism.
Maybe because he shares some of Hendrick’s eccentric tendencies, Jack’s okay with his son the way he is. “It’s what surprised him the most—not the overpowering love all the books required that he feel for his child—just that he simply liked being around him.” For Jack, Hendrick’s behavior and the information he shares has rhythms. It’s a kind of language Jack can learn, if he pays attention.
Unfortunately, Beth doesn’t get it. Her despair that Hendrick “can’t be unlocked” underlies the numbing caregiving routine the couple has developed for Hendrick—“a parallel universe” that feels increasingly alien to Jack. He rebels by bungling their kitchen remodel big-time, leaving Beth to cope with the wreckage, and to top things off, he buys the house across the street to flip, knowing he’s pushing her, and he’s not surprised when she walks out. What he didn’t expect was that she’d move in with his best friend, Canavan.
In a wry twist on parallel universes, Jack moves into his second house with Hendrick, arranging the furniture to reproduce the one they just left. Next, he adds Canavan’s ex-girlfriend Rena to his mission, a snarky, appealing muse who so wholeheartedly approves of his “big, stupid plans” that she even scares Jack.
In Jack’s wildest dreams, he couldn’t have imagined what comes next, which is that Hendrick casually starts speaking fluent Spanish, courtesy of Ernesto.
Now anything is possible, and when Jack visits a neglected Putt Putt course populated by giant undersea creatures, he stumbles onto the heart of what he instantly knows he’s been looking for: “There’s something here, finally, that seems correct. Broken, but correct.”
What he’ll do with an eight-foot-high catfish “with an eye patch, smoking a cigarette,” and the rest of the fiberglass statues, he’s not quite sure. It has something to do with Hendrick, who’s never expressed a shred of interest in the sea or anything that lives in it. But Jack has a hunch.
How this all pans out is where a lesser writer might crash to earth, staggering under a load of postmodern symbols and the kind of over-the-top action that if made into a movie, might star Ben Stiller. Perry, however, never loses his footing. Similarly, Jack tells himself that against all odds, his vision could work, that all he needs is “a patron saint of lost causes, or damaged ones.” He believes Hendrick might be that benevolent presence.
With this charming, darkly funny story about “the beautiful kind of too much,” Perry asks where we draw the line between good crazy and bad crazy, between normal and abnormal, and what happens if we don’t fit on the spectrum, and why that’s okay. As Jack says of his son, “there’s something a little joyous, alongside all the disaster, about living with Hendrick. Some feeling he gets about being in better or closer contact with the things we need, the things we want.”
Maybe we need to be just exactly like that.
(A version of this review ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on July 11 2010.)