Misfits managing to get by in Philadelphia
of Right Now
By Matthew Quick
Harper. 281 pp. $25.99
Reviewed by Derrick Nunnally
The protagonists of Matthew Quick's novels sure tend to draw hard hands in life.
If Quick, a South Jersey native, comes around with a notebook to make observations, it might be a good idea to head the other way fast.
In his latest, The Good Luck of Right Now, the unfortunate subject is Bartholomew Neil, a sheltered Philadelphian hoping to reach a couple of modest mileposts of adulthood by the time he turns 40. A beer with a friend in a bar, perhaps a date with a girl. The trouble this time is that the mother who cared for him has just died of brain cancer, and Bartholomew - beset by unspecified mental challenges and casually called "retard" for much of his life - must, at 39, grow up in a hurry.
For guidance, he turns to Richard Gere. Of course.
We learn Bartholomew's story through a rambling series of letters to the Hollywood star, always "Dear Mr. Richard Gere," whose movies Bartholomew watched with his late mother. A form letter from Gere found in the late mother's underwear drawer inspires our hero to pretend, with no shortage of gauzy optimism, that the Philly-born actor is an encouraging presence in his life, a counterweight to the punches and name-calling from "the tiny angry man in my stomach."
Bartholomew tells Gere all about his universe: days spent mostly at the Free Library of Philadelphia, where he admires a graceful worker ("the Girlbrarian") from afar, as he has for three years, regular Saturday-night Masses at St. Gabriel's, and time spent gazing out at the river flowing past the Water Works. He has two real-world confidants: a grief counselor who pushes him toward realized adulthood, and a bearded, wild-eyed priest who was close to his mother. And that's it.
His letters have a decidedly uneven flow, peppered with semiarticulate digressions about how the priest looks like a potato or Richard Gere-themed talk of Tibet, Buddhism, supermodels, and so on. Bartholomew wants Gere to know he's read Jung and likes the psychiatrist's famous idea of synchronicity between seemingly coincidental events.
His mother even had a saying about it, which is where the book gets its cumbersome title. For much of the second half of the book, Bartholomew repeats it as a Capital-Letters Mantra, like an annoying infomercial host absolutely determined to drive home brand recognition. As readers of The Silver Linings Playbook might recall, this isn't Quick's first use of that trick. In The Good Luck of Right Now, the repetition sits about as conspicuously as Bob Dole's oft-mocked habit of repeating his own name.
Of course, the voice repeating the title-catchphrase isn't Quick's - it belongs to unreliable narrator Bartholomew Neil, the man-child who says quite early on that he "is not much of a writer." It's probably fairer to say he isn't much of an editor, as the story he tells between tangents evolves rather quickly into a shaggy-dog ensemble adventure.
When the action hits its quirky, compelling groove, Bartholomew and his circle of likewise damaged fellow travelers bumble through misadventures chockablock with Philly references (scrapple, Wanamaker's Christmas light show, and the Mütter Museum all appear early). It reads rather like A Confederacy of Dunces removed 1,200 miles northeast. As with that novel, it's impossible to come away unamused by The Good Luck of Right Now's kindhearted presentation of the misadventures of a damaged soul.
Whether a book is any good is a different question entirely, but The Good Luck of Right Now doesn't press its readers too hard to render critical judgment. Just about every central character is worth pulling for, the hard-luck plot twists are delivered straight (and predictably) so the reader isn't terribly wrenched, and poor Bartholomew is given a crew of misfits whose troubles even he can accept in stride. One of his sidekicks in particular, who might speak two sentences in the entire book without a specific unprintable expletive involved, is so warped it's hard to picture him ever landing full-time work, let alone doing so (at least) twice. Bartholomew accepts the man, takes him as a friend, and moves right along, helping where he can.
So goes life in a feel-good story.
Derrick Nunnally is a former Inquirer staff writer.