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'Beholder' Has An Eye For The Absurd, And A Smirk Beneath Its Beard

Stop me if you've heard this one before: There's this guy, a dude in a bathrobe and a tangled mess of a beard who refuses to go outside. His wife left him nearly two years ago for a man with Greek god's jawline and a glamor job. Shortly before that? The guy's mom died of a painful, debilitating form of cancer, not long after his burgeoning rock band became a moldering pile of rubble. Oh, and that refusal to leave his house? That's just his blooming anxiety — paranoia, even — about the vast and uncaring world around him.

Hilarious, right?

The slightly baffling thing — and the testament to author Adam Rapp's skill — is that it actually is. The guy in question is Francis Falbo, the sad sack landlord at the heart of Know Your Beholder. It's his manuscript that gives us this glimpse of his winter spent stewing alone in his attic, only occasionally venturing downstairs to inquire into the lives of his tenants — but going no farther. The narrative flits between stage-setting flashbacks and his inevitably awkward encounters with the people living in his house, which, by the way, has been converted from his childhood home. It's a life governed by a stubborn inertia; it's the lifestyle you might expect of a driver who months ago mistook a runaway truck lane for an offramp — then just decided to sit it out.

And yet, more often than any book I can easily recall, Rapp's novel had me laughing like a fool, embarrassing myself each time I unthinkingly brought it out in public. Perhaps more surprisingly, that humor felt entirely natural — born organically from the idiosyncrasies of the characters themselves rather than foisted on them. With the exception of a few pratfalls and set pieces, Rapp mostly dredges comedy from Francis' peculiar ways of seeing the world, and from the mundanely weird people who populate it.

Take tenant Baylor Phebe, an uncomfortably kind man in middle age, whose ponderous stomach "could be the subject of a Roald Dahl story." Or wayward bandmate Glose, who's homeless and, for the bulk of the book, utterly pantsless, and whose greatest act of ambition seems to be declaring, "I do think about doing stuff" — while lying down. Or even Francis' drug dealer, Haggis, who may start the book "as far away from the concept of the word [fitness] as a shipwrecked man from a fax machine," but who ends up spending most of the winter shoveling Francis' walk — because, well, he feels like it, I guess. In any case, we'll hear him in the distance at odd points in the narrative, huffing away as he salts down the sidewalk.

Adam Rapp is not only a novelist, but also a screenwriter, film director and playwright. His play <em>Red Light Winter</em> was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2006.
/ Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company
Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company
Adam Rapp is not only a novelist, but also a screenwriter, film director and playwright. His play Red Light Winter was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2006.

The list could go on, of course, but what can't be covered in a brief summary is the way in which these characters poke and prod Francis into fitful change. Their relationships with one another, while odd, ring true precisely because of their oddness, not in spite of it. Think here of what it's like to live in a freshman dorm, confronted up close with just how weird strangers can be — and learning over time how that weirdness can resolve into familiar faces, eventually becoming real. That's Rapp's true feat: threading these little details together so that the humor doesn't distract from or leaven the sadness — rather, it's inseparable from it.

Occasionally Rapp does miss the mark, notably with Francis' love interests, who sometimes bear an unfortunate resemblance to Saturday Night Live's one-dimensional female character in a male-driven comedy. The problem's by no means endemic; Francis' female tenants are shaped with far more attention and sympathy, which may indicate the issue rests more with the narrowness of Francis' romantic perspective than with Rapp. Still, though, the contrast can frustrate at times — particularly when we're asked to buy Francis' emotional investment in these women.

But, as with any book worth reading, Know Your Beholder overcomes its missteps, much as some of its characters do their own — with an appreciation of the absurd and a keen sense that perfection's often overrated anyway.

"All the things we must survive," Francis observes at one point. "The list just keeps going." For the most part, the whole novel echoes this sentiment, but something tells me Rapp would add just one thing: It's best, then, to hold onto our sense of humor.

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Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.