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.