Inverness author Jeffrey Hickey’s third novel, Scary, Man, was released earlier this month and is available in bookstores and online at Amazon. He will read selections this Saturday, October 26 at 9 p.m. at Vladimir’s, in Inverness.
The book follows Griffin Donnelly, an attractive, fortysomething Mill Valley dad who travels across the Bay Area on low-paying gigs telling children’s stories and teaching classes on how to find one’s voice. He seems on the edge of making it big as he books shows at larger and more respected venues. But he is also tiring of the wait, the economic hardship, obnoxious children, and most of all, the jealous parents and teachers who gossip about him and anything else out of the ordinary in their small-town life.
What is best about Mr. Hickey’s character is not Griffin’s heroic triumph over these problems, but his pathetic qualities. He complains too much. He gets angry. Like John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, Griffin is a protagonist we are not sure we are supposed to like.
He says he loves his family, but in the first pages, he walks out the door without kissing his 9-year-old daughter goodbye. Before his first storytelling session, he makes himself smile by looking out at the audience of kids and thinking, “Someday, they’ll all be on drugs.” He checks out a waitress at a diner, thinking, “She’s cute, or maybe she was cute a few years earlier in high school,” before he realizes what he is doing and berates himself. “Jesus, man, stop it.”
Griffin has flaws, but he wants to overcome them. Through them, he becomes more relatable, and more like each of us. Though often the pain Griffin endures from the gossip and bullying is poignant, the novel hits its lowest points when Mr. Hickey falls prey to Griffin’s flaws of self-pity and paranoia, and his overcharged reactions to other people. When Griffin should be held responsible for some of his less-than-respectable actions, Mr. Hickey justifies the overreaction by introducing characters plotting against Griffin.
It becomes difficult for Mr. Hickey to describe social interactions accurately in this ambitious novel of manners, when nearly all of Griffin’s conspiracy theories come true. Everyone—his parents, business partners, old friends, new confidantes—seems to take advantage of him, disturbing the novel’s sense of realism.
Mr. Hickey writes his best scenes when the small people scheming in the shadows are nowhere in sight, when Griffin must interact with people without resorting to criticism or blame. He must take a page from his own lesson plan and rediscover his authentic voice. In doing so, he can surprise and move us with his empathy.
In an early scene, Griffin pokes fun at a nurse who smokes (and croaks like “a foghorn”), referring to her variously as “The Poster Woman for Emphysema,” “Nurse Asphyxiation” and “Nurse West Virginia Black Lung Disease,” but the woman’s revelation during a regular checkup that Griffin is a universal blood donor changes—and probably saves—his life. With biting wit, Griffin thinks, “May she rest in peace.”
At these moments, when Griffin nears true compassion, we profit from knowing him and his struggle to live in a world ravaged by terrorism and war, changing sexual mores and economic hardship, or as Mr. Hickey terms it, the new normal.