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Review-a-Day
Powells.com
Saturday, February 18th, 2006


 

Here They Come

by Yannick Murphy

Scratching beneath the Surface

A review by Jill Owens

A parade of hotdog vendors. A policeman on his horse in Central Park. A railroad apartment, with a perfect view to people-watch from the fire escape. These are iconic New York images, and Yannick Murphy's new novel is thick with them. But shift your perspective slightly: what if the apartment is piled high with rotting garbage because its inhabitants can't afford to have it removed; the bathroom becomes so cold in the winter that breaking the ice on the toilet water becomes a morning ritual; and the hot dog vendor, one of the narrator's best friends, gives her Hershey bars in exchange for letting him feel her up? Welcome to Here They Come, a novel which decenters the familiar -- pushes it through the looking glass to the point of acceptance, humor, and maybe even awe, of a surreal adolescence both blessed and cursed.

Here They Come is the not-exactly-coming-of-age story of an unnamed thirteen-year-old girl, who lives with her mother, sisters, and teenage brother (sometimes along with their ailing French grandmother) in a tenement apartment in 1970s New York. Their father, who's left the family and is living with his girlfriend (described only as "the slut"), is a filmmaker, gambler, and alcoholic, but he's still doing quite a bit better, financially speaking, than the narrator's abandoned family. She and her siblings visit her father and the slut on Long Island, shuttling back and forth across a city populated with characters both charming and dangerous, until one day her father goes missing.

Murphy's prose is poetic, quirky, and a little breathless (it's a McSweeney's book, after all), but it is also tremendously strong, and both grounded and moving. Objects - a mattress flung down to the street, a tattered bathrobe of blue silk embroidered with Chinese dragons - take on a layered, symbolic intensity throughout the novel; so do phrases (the one that stayed in my head the most being "fuck, what a dog," about the only family member the narrator shows uncomplicated affection towards). Murphy's ability to stretch and twist small episodes over the course of the year into a spiraling, stream-of-consciousness record of growing up is a testament to her success.

It's the details, poignant and disturbing, that stick with you: the narrator prancing around in her grandmother's silk saffron-colored pants; the maggots flushed from the garbage, sliding in a poisoned stream down the slanting floor; the narrator's recently acquired ability to bend spoons (which also encompasses plastic butter knives). Murphy wields dialogue like a pro, as well; her tone is fairly light, given some of the subject matter, but with DeLillo-esque artistry, she hides daggers just beneath the surface. Here They Come is a funny, genuine, and smart novel from a writer to keep an eye on.


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