I’ll go ahead and admit that Silver Linings Playbook is one of my favorite movies of all time. The quirky comedy/drama/romance is set in blue-collar Philadelphia, and features two off-kilter adults, played spectacularly by Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, struggling with mental illness and trying to get their lives back in order. Though I haven’t read the book, I liked the movie so much that I was very excited when I heard that author Matthew Quick was scheduled to give a presentation at the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting back in January. Matthew Quick is kind of strange! But in a good way. The unusual tone of Silver Linings Playbook that I enjoyed was also present in his talk, and, happily, in his second novel as well.
Matthew Quick seems committed to writing about issues, ideas, and settings in which most other writers don’t have much interest. I only took a few notes during his presentation, but I think I told him afterwards that I liked his speech because it was unusual. Which, as you can imagine, I don’t think he really liked hearing! Anyway, he’s got a specific kind of optimism that’s a strange mixture of superstition, Buddhism, Catholicism, and average Joe philosophy. He summed up his theory by observing that “…maybe there’s no formula for art… maybe we can’t know all the answers, and isn’t that beautiful?” I’ll tell you what was beautiful — getting a free, autographed copy of his new book, The Good Luck of Right Now.
By page 3, I knew that I liked this book. It’s comprised of a series of letters 39-year-old Bartholomew Neil writes to movie star Richard Gere. Bartholomew is a bit of an odd bird. He’s spent all of his life with his mother, and has never had a job. When his mom succumbs to brain cancer, Bartholomew is suddenly left alone in the world. Struggling to cope with his grief, Bartholomew imagines that Richard Gere is his spiritual advisor and proceeds to tell him about the changes he is trying to make in his life.
The supporting cast of characters are all endearingly bizarre. There’s Father McNamee, a drunken Irish priest with bipolar disorder who defrocks himself and moves in with Bartholomew. Wendy, Bartholomew’s young, pretty grief counselor, is stuck in an abusive relationship with a handsome doctor. Max is obsessed with cats, and says f*** an average of three times in every sentence. Max’s sister, Elizabeth, volunteers at a library and isn’t capable of doing much after a traumatic event several years prior. Everyone is sort of floating around, moving through life with relatively little success, and coping with their own quirks and insecurities.
There’s definitely something unusual, I guess you would say, about Bartholomew Neil, and he’s painfully aware of this fact. He knows that he lacks social skills, and things that are easy for most people are sometimes very difficult for him. But Bartholomew’s mental illness is never explicitly laid out, and I think the book is stronger for the omission. After all, most mental illnesses overlap with one another, and even the more distinguishable ones are usually arranged along a gradient. Bartholomew’s peculiarities don’t prevent him from being a good person, though. In fact, he has the opportunity to prove himself a hero several times over — he is extremely sweet and good-natured, but sometimes his nervousness and introversion make it difficult for him to take action. He’s also capable of moments of startling insight, such as when he speaks with a Canadian border agent:
Are those types of questions able to define us as people — measure our worth, our goodness, and whether or not we are safe visitors? Where are you going? What do you do for a living? Business or pleasure? Do the answers prove whether our lives matter, and whether we’re worthy of being admitted into Canada? …Any criminal worth his or her salt would be a proficient liar and could easily get through the border patrol stop, but — left to our own devices — people like me will fail every time. (p. 208-209)
Bartholomew understands that he sometimes makes people feel uncomfortable, which subsequently makes it more difficult for him to conquer his insecurities and behave appropriately in social situations. His guiding philosophy, though, “The Good Luck of Right Now,” maintains that whenever something bad is happening to him, something good has to be happening elsewhere in the world. In other words, the positive and the negative cancel each other out, and everyone eventually gets a dose of good luck.
“What have I been telling you since you were a boy? Whenever something bad happens to us,” Mom said as she tucked me into my new bed, “something good happens — often to someone else. And that’s The Good Luck of Right Now. We must believe it. We must. We must. We must.” (p. 153)
Even though Bartholomew sometimes finds it hard to believe in The Good Luck of Right Now, it’s a reassuring worldview that helps him to take both the good and the bad in stride. Bartholomew eventually extends this yin-yang outlook to encompass himself, Elizabeth, and Max; without abnormal people around, there would be no way of defining “normal.” Nothing can exist without its opposite.
“Well, if there weren’t weird, strange, and unusual people who did weird things or nothing at all, there couldn’t be normal people who do normal, useful things, right?”
“What the fuck, hey?” Max squinted at me.
“The word normal would lose all of its meaning if it didn’t have an opposite. And if there were no normal people, the world would fall apart — because it’s normal people who take care of all the normal things.” (p. 212)
It’s a refreshingly simple and infinitely comforting philosophy. You exist in the universe so that your opposite may exist. Bad exists so that good may exist. Darkness exists such that light may have meaning (incidentally, that last example is what Russian masterpiece The Master and Margarita uses to argue that God exists — because don’t we see the Devil in action every day?). While I may not necessarily completely endorse this philosophy, it would be arrogant of me to pretend that I don’t have my own ways of rationalizing the world that make it easier for me to get through day-to-day life.
Overall, I have a feeling that this book isn’t quite as compelling as The Silver Linings Playbook, but that’s ok, because it means I’ll probably like that one even more! I’m really glad that Matthew Quick became a writer, because as I said, I don’t think anyone else is writing about the same things he does, and definitely not in the same way. The only book that marginally reminded me of The Good Luck of Right Now was She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb, which I pretty much hated because it meandered all over the place. If you’re in the mood for something different, something simple yet perceptive, and written in a fresh, easy-to-move-through style, then you ought to try reading The Good Luck of Right Now. I also secretly hope that David O. Russell will make it into a movie.
Overall rating: 4/5 stars