Over seven years have passed since the publication of Tod Wodicka’s debut novel, All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well, which took its mantra-like title from the writings of Julian of Norwich. The book, about a medieval reenactor who disdains all things OOP (Out of Period), was charming but uneven; it was often very funny but strained in vain for an underlying seriousness. That said, it showed such unmistakable promise that one kept an eye out, year after year, for Wodicka’s name on lists of forthcoming titles. What would he do next? In Wodicka’s sophomore effort, The Household Spirit, we have an answer as surprising as it is satisfying.
It seemed, given the willful zaniness of All Shall Be Well, that Wodicka would be quite comfortable with the label “comic novelist.” But it turns out that Wodicka is not a man with a genre; he is a man with a subject, and he feels compelled to examine it through multiple literary approaches. The Household Spirit is not comic, though it has many darkly humorous moments, but like All Shall Be Well it is fundamentally about alienation and how one reckons with it. One suspects Wodicka himself feels a little OOP now and then.
The plot of The Household Spirit is simple—so simple, in fact, that the book’s publicity materials make it sound conventional, even maudlin. It is about the progress of an “unlikely friendship,” we are told, between a middle-aged man and his much younger (mid-twenties) female neighbor. They each have their problems. Perhaps he will rediscover his paternal side; perhaps she will reinvigorate him with her free-spiritedness and sex appeal, like so many Manic Pixie Dream Girls before her.
Not so fast. Howie Jeffries—fifty, divorced, employed at a waste-water treatment plant, and interested in very little besides fishing and saving up for a boat—isn’t the kind of lovable curmudgeon made famous onscreen by Jack Nicholson or Bill Murray. He is, in what ranks as a genuine risk on Wodicka’s part, a cipher, a man so dull that his face is upsettingly dull. At one point, Wodicka treats Howie’s features, their “gaunt, arboreal lonesomeness,” as if they were not merely unreadable but deformed: Howie’s smile—or attempt at a smile—makes a child cry. This is the man we’re supposed to root for!
The reader is presented with a history of Howie’s life in a modest house on featureless Route 29 in Glens Falls, New York. He and his wife arrive there as newlyweds, with only an odd elderly couple, the Phanes, to call neighbors: “Some friends of theirs hadn’t even finished college yet and here they were, Howie and his wife, already in their dotage, living way up the ass end of nowhere watching a horror-movie version of their future unfold next door.” Howie and his wife have a child, Harriet, around the same time that the Phanes’ troubled daughter turns up and gives birth to her own girl, Emily.
Baby Emily’s mother and grandmother are killed in a car accident. Howie’s wife leaves him. Two decades go by. The next halfway interesting thing that happens to the man is when Emily, long since decamped from Glens Falls, calls him to check on her grandfather—whose life Howie is barely able to save. This is an elaborate setup for the remainder of the book, in which Emily and Howie live side-by-side, regarding each other uneasily before coming to rely on each other entirely. There is nothing charming or cinematic about their relationship; it is deeply awkward, developing in fits and starts and never settling into a rhythm that can’t be disrupted by a false move or ill-considered comment.
The thing about “unlikely friendships” is that they are unlikely only in real life; in movies and fiction they are as predictable as car chases and dogs barking somewhere in the distance. It takes a steady authorial hand, and a knack for verisimilitude, to make everythingbut the friendship seem plausibly run-of-the-mill. Wodicka possesses these gifts, especially when it comes to characterization and dialogue. He is strong on some of the deeply unpleasant ways that children have of talking to their parents. He can render an office party or a clumsy romantic encounter so perfectly that the reader not only feels like a fly on the wall but also prays desperately for the swatter. Here’s Howie on a “date”:
“I knew it’d be like this,” she said. “But not like this, actually. Something like this. I always thought you’d be, I don’t know, more mean?” She made a serious face. “More of an asshole. I guess I’m glad you’re not more mean? You’re not mean at all, are you?”
“I’ve always had a crush on you, but you know that,” Rho said. Her finger stopped on his wrist. “I’ve kind of looked up to you. My father was the same. You don’t suffer fools. You’re so strong.”
Howie could not think of anything to say to this.
“But I get it,” Rho said. She pulled back. “I’ll stop. You don’t want to kiss me. I’ll stop. I’m sorry.”
Oh, mud, Howie thought.
He closed his eyes. This, he thought, is something that inebriated people are allowed to do: suddenly sleep. He pretended to do that.
The reader had better come prepared to cringe.
Wodicka doesn’t limit the weirdness of his “unlikely friendship” to the difference in age and temperament between Howie and Emily. He makes the reason for their relationship something out of the ordinary, special, unrelated to the parade of tragedies that her life has been. Emily suffers from sleep paralysis and night terrors so dramatic that she tries, like the teenagers in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, not to fall asleep at all. Howie helps her navigate her nocturnal visitations. They are rendered by Wodicka with a startling poetry, making uncanny a book that spends most of its time rooted in the real, unremarkable soil of Upstate New York. Is the reader supposed to entertain supernatural explanations for what is happening to Emily? This is left usefully ambiguous.
The Household Spirit is a case study in two varieties of alienation: the kind that results from one’s personality and the kind that results from one’s circumstances. Howie suffers from the former. “Shy” is too easy an explanation for his lack of interest in life and people. He simply cannot comprehend why other people behave as they do, why their interests are so engaged as they are. Howie might be defective—but the reader must contend unhappily with the possibility that everyone else might be, too. As for Emily, she stands as a symbol of the fact that anyone can lose life’s lottery and end up with an affliction that makes existence all but impossible to endure.
Unfortunately, Wodicka’s book departs from the uncanny valley and returns dutifully to the kind of ending we recognize from movies. There is a low-stakes “caper,” first, and then a Where Are They Now ending that feels indifferently tacked on to the novel proper. But there is so much in The Household Spirit to make up for the way it peters out. It is a brooding but ultimately joyful look at the way human connection works, its challenges and tiny triumphs. Just look at this snippet of “conversation”—that’s putting it generously—between Howie and Emily:
“It’s why ghosts are so confused, so dreamlike? In the books, anyway. They’re not trying to scare you. . . . They just kind of go through the motions like we do in dreams. The most boring stuff, too. I don’t know. Like dreaming of being at work. How they can’t be reasoned with and if they really see you that’s it, they disappear. They wake up. But somewhere else. I think in some way all that stuff exists right now, like all around us. Like we’re all trapped. Those people are here, too, sleeping or whatever. Paper working. Doing whatever they did at the mills.”
“They invented the flat-folding paper bag at one of them,” Howie said.
Howie may seem in this moment like the consummate bore, the human equivalent of a flat-folding paper bag, but he also represents potential. He’s trying. He’s learning. And he has something to offer, which is why he’ll eventually get there.