F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that he once thought there were no second acts in American lives. But what of third or fourth acts? Or the lives of Greek Americans migrating to Australia? Such are the conundrums driving Andrew Pippos’s debut novel, a meditation on the stories we tell ourselves and the lives they shape.
Vasilis “Lucky” Mallios is a man whose nickname has begun to feel cruelly ironic. We meet him as he sits transfixed by Wheel of Fortune, about to receive a call from Emily Main, who has been commissioned by The New Yorker to write a profile of Lucky. Her focus is on his diners, a once-formidable franchise that disappeared during the ’90s, unable to recover from changing culinary tastes and a tragic shooting. Emily, too, knows something of failure: her journalism career has stalled, and her husband has unceremoniously called it quits on their relationship.
Pippos has been quietly publishing since 1999. A hiatus lasting much of the 2000s was broken in 2011 with “Don’t Be Like That”, a short story for n+1 magazine. A number of that tale’s elements are reprised in Lucky’s, particularly the idea of chance and the author’s penchant for colourful plotting. Upon learning that a man he just met has died, the protagonist of “Don’t Be Like That” reflects: “I believed him at the time. Now I wonder: where did he get the dog story?” Pippos himself has many – all of them shaggy.
The problem is not just the lack of resolution across the novel’s multiple narratives (although there is that). Not every story requires resolution. But Lucky’s is so laden with incident that it never has the chance to cohere, unless blithe coincidence qualifies. The lack of sustained attention to the characters’ interior lives renders them cipher-like, long-suffering tragedians caught in a series of multiplying cosmic dramas. For all its busyness, Lucky’s retains an oddly muted, static quality: What does it matter how Emily’s father dies – or that he dies at all? Does Lucky pretending to be jazz musician Benny Goodman, or appearing on Wheel of Fortune, have any meaningful effect on the proceedings? It is as though happenstance and idiosyncrasy were employed to create narrative rather than to explore it – to add solely for adding’s sake.
Perhaps this is why several novels compete for our attention in Lucky’s: the story of Emily’s failed relationship; the vagaries of patriarchy and migration in white Australia; the idea of artistic ventriloquism and Fitzgerald’s second acts.
Sadly, few of them feel finished.
Picador, 368pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 12, 2020 as "Andrew Pippos, Lucky’s".
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