The Miss America Family
In this stunning follow-up to the acclaimed Girl Talk, a fading beauty-pageant veteran and her sixteen-year-old son team up as the delightfully nimble co-chroniclers of one family's soulful, mordantly funny remembrance of things past. With her irreverent evocation of suburban dissolution, Julianna Baggott gives us a fictional world whose emotional complexity and comedic dysfunction closely resemble our own.
It's 1987 in Greenville, Delaware. Ezra Stocker is the son of an insomniac ex-Miss New Jersey named Pixie and a gay, absentee father; the stepson of an ex-quarterback dentist with a taste for turtle-patterned golf pants; and the grandson of a superstitious, stroke-addled woman with a passion for birds and some truly odd notions about fish and the family ancestry. He has created for himself a specific goal this summer vacation: to make a list of "Rules to Live By," his own set of guidelines to take him through life. A boy whose chief distinguishing traits include webbed toes and a knack for standardized aptitude tests, Ezra has no reason to expect that by the end of this particular summer, due largely to a doomed romance with a wealthy podiatrist's daughter and a fateful episode with a gun, every one of those rules will be tossed out the window.
It's 1987 in Greenville, Delaware, but Pixie Stocker is consumed by the past. When she was Ezra's age, she too sought the secret rules and how-to's for negotiating life and attaining her dream of the all-American family. Pixie had found her answers in the comfortingly black-and-white strictures of Emily Post -- and later in the rigid absolutes of the beauty pageant circuit. Such certainties have long since vanished, replaced by the relentless haunting of her memory, and the ceaseless reverberations of a long-ago act of brutal violation. When Ezra's grandmother, disoriented from her stroke, reveals to her daughter an explosive and longburied family secret, she spurs Pixie toward a series of bizarre and dangerous choices in an endeavor to reclaim her tragic past and, for better or worse, start anew.
In the pages of The Miss America Family Julianna Baggott creates as unique a voice -- and as idiosyncratic a sensibility -- as any novelist has managed in years, extending her range and craft with dazzling, high-wire mixtures of absurdity and pathos, hilarity and darkness.
Baggott takes family dysfunction to a new level in a sophomore effort (after last year's Girl Talk) full of kookiness and calamity. It's 1987, in suburban Delaware, and Pixie Stocker, Miss New Jersey of 1970, and her 16-year-old son, Ezra, take turns narrating this tale of domestic wheeling and dealing. As the novel opens, we learn that Pixie, who divorced her first husband (a handsome household cleaner salesman and Ezra's father) has shot her second (but only in the arm). Why did Pixie shoot dentist Dilworth Stocker What is it like for intelligent Ezra to have grown up in such a bizarre family These are some of the questions Baggott answers over the course of her highly readable narrative. Her wit is caustic, verging on mordant: sickly young Ezra, for example, can't have a cat, but he can pet his mother's fuzzy slippers while she purrs; while in the aftermath of the shooting, Pixie tells her daughter, Mitzie, that it was "something like the death of a beloved pet, bound to happen eventually to every American family." The family also includes Pixie's mother, who's convinced humans descended from fish, not Adam, and whose take on the Immaculate Conception is that Mary should have said "no" to Gabriel. Pixie's father, drunk, drowned while attempting a Houdini escape trick, and Cliff, her brother, was killed in Vietnam after the slaughter of a village. From the hilarious Ezra's seduction by the girl next door to the hideous Pixie's beauty contest mentor's self-induced abortion Baggott explores contemporary "civilized" behavior and the imperfections of a "perfect American family" with wit and grace. (Apr.) Forecast: It's hard not to appreciate this light but still affecting title, and a 12-city author tour plus online chats and interviews should attract more readers to Baggott's particular blend of irony and charm. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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February 18, 2003
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Excerpt from The Miss America Family by Julianna Baggott
I'll start just before the beginning, just before the incident with Janie Pinkering and her father's French tickler. I believe you should lead up to sex. And I'll get to death, too -- an almost-death, at least, how someone changes when they're about to die. Their mouth and eyes can be wide open like a child's again as if singing the "oh" of one of their favorite songs. That's how Mitzie put it, my little half sister, who's probably a better person than everybody I know put together.
This was just this past summer, six months ago now. Everything started to happen all at once, as if all my life I was waiting for the beginning and finally there it was, like I was leaning against what I thought all along was a wall, and then it gave in, and I realized it was a door, swung wide open to bright, dazzling sun. This was when my mom, for all intents and purposes, left my stepdad, Dilworth Stocker, and Mitzie decided to live with our neighbors, the Worthingtons, a nice, squat but well-postured couple who eat things that Mrs. Worthington has made from scratch, who, you can tell just by looking at them, think all children are precious gifts from God, even though God didn't bless them with any of their own. (The household's fertility seeming to be wasted on the cats, hundreds of them wandering in and out of a kitty door on the side of their house.) All at once, it seemed like people had decided to tell their lousy secrets. My grandmother told hers, things that I've never really understood except that they were dark, too dark to pass on any further than they needed to be, and I guess she decided, in a weakened post-stroke condition, that they needed to be passed on, at least to my mother, who reacted with calm irrationality. And my real dad, too, unburdened himself to me in a convertible a few blocks from a stranger's house, telling me that he's a faggot, after all, not even bisexual, but purely gay, despite the fact that he married my mother and, evidently, had sex with her at some point. Although he pretended that he didn't know I'd been kept in the dark, it was, in fact, a secret and came as a complete shock. Even Mr. Pichard, an old man I met who could sing opera, spilled his guts. And I had to start sorting all this shit out. But I've got to start before everything happened, because you have to know how much bullshit I was dealing with in this intensely dull way. I have to explain what the wall was like before it swung open as a door.