Although Trump’s grip on the American leadership is now so eggshell-fragile there’s no guarantee he’ll still be in power by the time this review is in print, it’s a given that either way, opinion writers will for years to come be dissecting the overall “how the fucks?” of his gobsmacking presidency. They’ll continue picking apart the politicisation of Trump’s “deplorables” – middle Americans in the so-called flyover states with a collective rage regarding the apparently abandoned white working class. J. D. Vance’s recent memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, claimed to provide “a great insight into Trump and Brexit”, but Matthew Quick’s The Reason You’re Alive is more successful, even through the wash of fiction.
Quick tackles the complexity of combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder, mental health and bigotry via anti-hero David Granger, a “dangerous right-wing grandpa” and Vietnam vet who has suffered a brain tumour he suspects is a result of Agent Orange exposure. Granger mouths off about any and every sensitive subject: guns (he’s for them), “gooks” (he’s against them), homosexuals (it’s complicated). He’s given a grand comic foil in the shape of his Obama-voting son Hank, an organic food-embracing art dealer whose bleating voice in arguments with his father never quite hits the mark as genuinely as Granger’s sprawlingly pissed-off opinions. There are narrative arcs woven through the book for the reader to unpack – in particular the story of Granger’s late wife, Jessica, and a Native American soldier he must make peace with – but they seem to limp rather than crackle, as necessary join-the-dot devices that don’t quite pay their way.
Quick’s writing style is punchy, brittle, tetchy – he doesn’t seem far removed from his protagonist in carrying some major beefs with modern society. His New York Times-best-selling The Silver Linings Playbook delved into similar “angry guy with questionable mental health mouthing off at the world” territory, and Quick’s at his best when that voice dominates the page clear and true, even when the novel’s structure struggles to hold water.
If the “many sides” of Trump’s America are going to stop ramming cars into each other at race rallies there has to be a deeper level of understanding between parties, and The Reason You’re Alive certainly creates a character in David Granger that is far more complex than a paint-by-numbers bigot. It’s not a brilliant book but as a starting point for a conversation it’s certainly worth a glance. KR
Picador, 320pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 19, 2017 as "Matthew Quick, The Reason You’re Alive".
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