All about Lulu
by Jonathan Evison
A review by Gerry Donaghy
In the opening paragraph of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield warns the reader that he's just going to explain what happened to him the previous Christmas, not his whole life story or "all that David Copperfield kind of crap." Will Miller, the narrator of Jonathan Evison's debut novel All about Lulu, takes the opposite approach, "First, I'm going to give you all the Copperfield crap, and I'm not going to apologize for any of it, not one paragraph." Taking his cue from Salinger's archetypical angry young man, Evison one-ups him by giving his protagonist a wit that matches his attitude.
Will is the eldest son of a champion bodybuilder and carries a passionate dislike for his father's profession. Not only is he the target of taunts from his father but also from his twin younger brothers who have chosen to follow in their father's footsteps. After the death of his mother, introverted Will emerges from his shell of self-isolation when his father remarries and he meets his new stepsister Lulu. Interest becomes desire, which turns into obsession, which then engulfs him in his adult life.
All about Lulu reads like Salinger for the Freaks and Geeks-meets-Wes Anderson crowd, a whip smart Gen X Lolita (sans pedophilia). While Evison lacks Nabokov's smugly elegant wordplay, he nonetheless packs this novel with candid observations and lucid deconstructions of the nature of obsession. Evison's gift for simile is superb, littering the novel with the detritus of his impish wit. Some random examples include: "I flipped the radio on and it hissed like a theremin in hot oil"; "Grinning like Ronald Reagan on Thai Stick"; and, my personal favorite "the smile of a man rushing to deliver a painful bowel movement at the frantic behest of Turkish customs agents."
No less well crafted is Evison's ability to recall a specific place and time, in this case, Southern California from around 1972 to 1991. While anybody can write about a hit song of the period, or wax rhapsodic over who shot J.R., Evison excavates the era for some truly obscure touchstones, like the Super Jock football toy or the Bone Fone, the latter being one of the more ridiculous inventions of the late '70s. The way that the author effortlessly tills the memory makes me think that he does a better job of recounting the era for me than if I had kept a diary of my own.
The only element that threatens to detour the proceedings is the subplot where Will opens a hotdog shack on Venice Beach with a former Soviet wrestler. While these scenes provide some comic relief from an otherwise emotional hayride of a narrative, they mostly feel like padding. There are other distractions along the way that fare much better, such as the reproduction of Will's college philosophy papers ("Kierkegaard: Now You See Him, Now You Don't") and his encounter with his high school guidance counselor in an adult bookstore.
Minor quibbles aside, All about Lulu marks an auspicious debut for a writer with equal parts heart and reckless verve.