It has been a very long time since I finished a novel and yelled, “that was awesome!” When you savor a book, carry it with you, let it steal moments of your day, stop yourself from finishing it, you’re lucky. The last time I felt this way, TomCat in Love, and that novel kicked my ass. Up to this point, Ben Schrank has had a quiet career, two previous books, and a swift and well-deserved ascent professionally. All the while he has gained an intense amount of wisdom, both as a writer and a man.
The story in Love is a Canoe is simple, economical, and fat-free. Eli and Emily are in love; they truly have found the right person to spend their lives with. Living in Brooklyn, (we’re treated to just a few highlights of that cliché-smeared borough) Eli is in the middle of launching his new company that builds bicycles. But he has a little Peter Pan in him (he sweats catnip), and Emily is hoping the boy she married will grow into the loving husband he could be. Sadly, as all love stories go, tragedy ensues.
Woven carefully into this story is the author of a Marriage for Dummies type book called Marriage is a Canoe, which is enjoying great backlist sales for his publisher, Ladder & Rake Books, which is not unlike Penguin (I worked there briefly), where Mr. Schrank works. In comes Stella; an enthusiastic, solidly hot, career-obsessed editor who needs to make her move. She does so by digging up the author of Marriage is a Canoe, Peter Herman. This guy is an aging bullshit artist, of the diamond variety, and he’s never really been called on the carpet for his Chicken McNugget advice. Stella dreams up a contest where a married couple, preferably in jeopardy, will get an afternoon in the presence of Mr. Herman. He will cure their marital woes, and everyone will go home in a canoe, limousine, or something.
Slowly and with great care these characters edge towards each other, and without a drop of what I like to call John Irving flights of fancy. And then these characters lives explode. The fallout is both compelling and brutally difficult to watch.
Marriage is a bitch; if you don’t want to get divorced, don’t get married. Peter Herman has suffered a personal disaster related to marriage, and despite that he maintains a strangely obtuse state of mind. Stella holds her career above all. Her boyfriend Ivan doesn’t have a girlfriend in Stella, he has career with a girlfriend attached to it, like a Salvation Army purse.
Emily loves Peter’s book, worship’s it, and wants the love she reads about to be real. Love is a lot of things, a feeling, passion, companionship, and a good greeting card. It’s never real. Eli, he just wants to have fun, and I get that, but he needs to remember, who suffers when he has fun? Eli and Emily cruise at an altitude where so much happens, it hurts to read. Peter tries to guide them from his bucolic backwoods AARP existence. Lurking in the background is a no-bullshit publishing executive named Helena, who will remind you of “that” aunt you only see at Thanksgiving.
The pace of this story is magnetic, fun, insightful and chiseled with brilliant detail. When a man’s eyes are likened to almonds, or his cum drying on a certain ladies leg, only to later regain it’s moist state, I ear marked the pages. We are treated to excerpts from Marriage is a Canoe, which have been sprinkled into this story. They totally work, in spades, which made me think there is a real Peter Herman. Love is a Canoe is what would’ve happened to Frank and April Wheeler if they had not moved to Revolutionary Road, where the American dream became a nightmare. Mr. Shrank’s novel is a sober and sharp update to what Yates accomplished all those years ago and equally as potent.