"we can only do what it seems to us we were made for, look at this world with a happy eye but from a sober perspective.”

-W.H. Auden

A Matter of Life or Death

Everything Matters!: A Novel
By Ron Currie, Jr.

One of the more curious features of Ron Currie Jr.’s apocalyptic debut novel Everything Matters! is how little the novel concerns itself with the actual details of its impending Armageddon. That’s not to say it doesn’t tell us what we need to know. At the outset, the voice of some vaguely supernatural entity—Currie suggested in a recent interview that it may simply be the voice of the universe personified—tells Junior Thibodeau, while still in his mother’s womb, that in thirty-six years, one hundred sixty-eight days, fourteen hours, and twenty-three seconds a comet will strike the Earth “with the explosive energy of 283,824,000 Hiroshima bombs.” But beyond that, Currie is really more interested in telling us how, throughout his life, Junior copes with this rather inconvenient truth than in constructing any elaborate schemes for how the world might avert this doomsday scenario. Perhaps Currie simply figures such plot lines are hackneyed or just better left to Hollywood. And so Everything Matters! is only preoccupied with apocalypse as a plot device, or more precisely as a proxy for talking about human mortality in general.

Everything Matters! ambitiously attempts to share not only Junior’s life story from (literally) gestation to death but also the stories of the other major players in his life: his doggedly stable but taciturn father, John Sr.; his mother Debbie, a worrywart and closet alcoholic; his coke-addict-turned-baseball-star older brother Rodney; and Amy, the girl he loves. Along with Junior and the prescient voice of the cosmos that he hears in his head, each character takes turns narrating the story.

Because Currie divides the narration among so many different characters, the book, though principally about Junior, quickly becomes a novel of the family. And in this vein, most of the story Currie tells sounds very familiar. For example, Junior’s father and namesake, John Sr., is essentially the Protestant work ethic made flesh, with all the stoicism you might expect from such a patriarch. He’s your classic blue-collar guy who works two jobs—days in the factory and nights alone at the bakery—to support the family and keep the wife at home with the kids. It’s a life that he seems to embrace, solitude included:

A solid twelve hours by myself, nothing but the radio to keep me company, and I like it just fine, being alone. It’s even better in the winter, during a storm, when the snow piles up outside and no cars come by at all. Inside the bakery it’s warm and there’s plenty to keep my hands busy. Times like that, for all I can tell I’m the only person left on earth. I could go on making pies and watching the snow pile up until the end of time, so long as there was enough coffee on hand. I don’t need company like some people seem to.

Currie is mostly drawing from a bank of archetypes that, with minor variations, already feel pretty well documented in American storytelling. Junior’s mother Debbie feels like a failed parent and perhaps a mildly bored homemaker, and when her Catholicism no longer pacifies these feelings, she numbs the loneliness of domesticity and the anxieties of motherhood with vodka in a Turbo Chug! cup from the local convenience store. Rodney, Junior’s older brother, kicks a drug habit and an Iron Maiden phase, and then proceeds to follow in his father’s proverbial footsteps all the way to major league stardom. So Currie’s rendering of this American family, while not without its perceptive moments, feels a bit recycled.

Everything Matters! is also a bit of a love story. Enter Amy Benoit, Junior’s recurring object of romance and source of heartache. Admittedly, the genesis of this love story has genuine charm: Amy arrives as the new girl in Junior’s Gifted and Talented class just in time to see the Challenger launch and then tragically explode in mid-air, no doubt propelling into Junior’s mind images of explosions yet unseen. But there’s Amy, beside him, to take his hand and offer some “bare comfort” in such a bleak and haunting moment. With Amy, there’s much to like: her brains, girl-next-door looks, and “self-possessed” demeanor. But as most love stories go, love-at-first-sight gives way to serious complications and, at least in the pace of Currie’s storytelling, the relationship quickly becomes rocky. What goes wrong with Amy and Junior is fairly straightforward: Junior confides in Amy that the world is soon coming to an end, and Amy freaks and thinks he’s delusional. But as with the novel’s family thread, in little time the plot lines slide into what feel like fairly standard tropes of many a modern love story. When Amy leaves for college and breaks up with Junior, his infatuation with her leads to depression, which leads to drugs and booze, which lead to less than coherent late-night phone calls to Amy’s dorm room. You get the drift. And then years later after it appears they’ve lost touch with each other, Junior heroically rescues Amy from peril and rekindles the romance. (Amy, of course, comes to her senses about Junior’s apocalyptic visions and realizes he really is prophetic, not just paranoid.) Compared with the novel’s other characters, Amy seems pretty plain. But she is also the novel’s most understated and authentic character, which makes her rather refreshing. In fact, it almost seems that Currie is actually the one most smitten with Amy, to the point that he takes rather bold narrative risks to keep her in the story.

Perhaps the characters and plot aren’t terribly original, but humor becomes far and away Currie’s most reliably satisfying element in the story. The humor isn’t of the guffawing variety, but it’s necessary all the same, if for no better reason than to keep the book from being all doom and gloom. It also manages to lighten up that voice in Junior’s head that often comes across as a strange combination of Nostradamus and Yoda. In a chapter titled “Brother,” the voice woodenly pronounces didactics like, “An older brother is both authority figure and peer, friend and bitter enemy, partner and rival, and will play these contradictory roles throughout your life.” Yet a couple pages later, the same voice gives us a playful image that makes a smirk hard to restrain:

[Rodney] sorts the cards into multiple piles on the sofa, arranging players by team and creating separate stacks for doubles and specialty cards. Each time he opens a pack he puts the powdery stick of gum in his mouth, and at this point he’s got a wad going that’s large enough to choke your favorite big lizard the brontosaurus, but he keeps adding to it, stick by stick, until he has to practically unhinge his jaw to chew.

Currie’s storytelling is also rife with quirky narrative tricks. One of these is his penchant for genre-dabbling, which Currie himself acknowledged in a recent interview: “It's a compulsion, really, and a dangerous one. I find that the eclectic genres I enjoyed as a kid (less so now, as my reading tends to be more ‘serious’) inevitably make their way into whatever I'm working on, whether I mean for them to or not.” So by design or by accident, the novel’s individual episodes seem constructed from the set pieces of spy novels, sci-fi, picaresque, family drama, and indie romance. The problem is that they are all so short-lived that, by the time each one starts to gain traction, the episode is finished and Currie moves on.

Another eccentricity of Currie’s style is his somewhat bizarre use of cameo appearances by fictitious renderings of marginal celebrities. These include the baseball legend Ted Williams, U.S. Senator, Olympia Snowe, and even former Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.

All of this distraction from the whole “Destroyer of Worlds” dilemma that Junior faces from the outset points to the fact that Currie, in the end, doesn’t really have much to say about apocalypse and its import. In the very first chapter, the omniscient voice in Junior’s head poses a fairly basic existential question for him to consider while still in utero: “Does Anything I Do Matter?” Put another way, the book’s main philosophical concern is to determine how we ought to live in light of our imminent and certain mortality. For most of the book, Junior is unsuccessful in reckoning with this question. He tries to put aside his melancholy about the world’s fate through Amy, and when that fails, he turns to drugs and alcohol, which not surprisingly, doesn’t help. Junior simply resigns to the thought that nothing matters. All the while, he is mourning for a world that, in his mind, is already gone.

But a major epiphany arrives just in time for Junior and rescues him from the brink of abject nihilism. From that moment on, in a fairly sudden about-face, he begins living as though—you guessed it—everything matters! He sets himself on a crusade to cure his father’s lung cancer, reclaim Amy’s devotion, and, well, save the planet. For the second half of the novel, Junior—aided by the ever-wise voice he hears in his head—morphs more-or-less into a kind of comic book hero whose main superpower is wicked smarts. (We’re told that Junior is the “fourth-smartest person in the history of the world.”)

But superheroes can’t save everyone, and besides, saving the world is not what Junior was put on earth to do. His vocation is to find meaning and purpose in a world whose expiration he knows down to the second. As the novel wraps up, the voice offers this exhortation as the end becomes very near:

Everything matters not in spite of the end of you and all that you love, but because of it. Everything is all you’ve got—your wife’s lips, your daughter’s eyes, your brother’s heart, your father’s bones and your own grief—and after Everything is nothing. So you were wise to welcome Everything, the good and the bad alike, and cling to it all. Gather it in. Seek the meaning in sorrow and don’t ever, ever turn away, not once, from here until the end. Because it is all the same, it is all unfathomable, and it is all preferable to the one dreadful alternative.

When it comes down to it, Everything Matters! offers us the conventional wisdom about savoring life for as long as we can before death snatches it away from us. Though life is often riddled with meaningless pain and suffering, it is also filled with real joy and, overall, certainly seems better than death. So enjoy it while it lasts! (It’s hard for me here not to replay Robin Williams as Mr. Keating whispering to his boys, “Carpe diem!”) For much of his adult life, Junior, like so many others confronted with the approach of death, furiously heeds Dylan Thomas’s advice to “rage against the dying of the light.” But this is, of course, a losing battle. A life spent fighting death is ultimately a life cut off from the joys of living. Though this is not a terribly novel message, it is life-affirming and, for that reason, satisfying.

Everything Matters! is a book that in its title, plot, and narration seeks to be comprehensive. This, at times, causes Curries to reach too far or become too generic. But despite the moments where I wish Currie had been more imaginative in answering the big questions his book raises, he fumbles his way through these weighty and often dour issues winsomely. And since fumbling is often the best many of us can do at making sense of life, it’s hard to be too critical of a story that holds a mirror up to our own clumsiness at handling life’s most sobering matters.

Youth in Repose

The Apostasy of Spencer Krug