Understudies-RMangla-promoI am hesitant to read novels under 200 pages, especially when it is fed to me one spoonful at a time from different bowls, in the dark. Ravi Mangla’s debut was excerpted on Vol. 1 Brooklyn a few weeks ago, and I immediately bought it.  Reminiscent of J. Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand, the chapters are no longer than a page; sometimes less, and each narrative thread carries with it a sharp twang. Understudies felt like ease dropping on a conversation in the powder room of your local whorehouse.

Our narrator goes unnamed which makes the reader feel like they are watching this world from 35,000 feet. But somehow this trick brings an even closer examination of a mundane suburban life into extreme close-up. He is a teacher, a has-been rock star, and a man slowly realizing that his life is over. Some would call him a sad sack. But is he? During the day he runs a classroom, and is part of an educational structure that is preparing high school students for life. His efforts are admirable, but he sees his life as unrecognized. My favorite character in the book is Chudley, a neighbor friend of the narrator and a comic foil with crackpot thinking. He arrives like a wet fart. At the same time a fading movie star moves into the neighborhood, and this too raises eyebrows. Chudley and the actress are destined to collide; the foreshadowing is slightly overt, but well played just the same.

Soaring over this story are the hopes and aspirations of a relationship, possibly fatherhood. Life’s dreams can sometimes expire, and leave us in a boring pattern, which some people would call life. Other times possibilities abound, and when our narrator realizes that ruining his life would be easy if he would only share a joint with a student after a band practice, then we know he is on the edge, or at least tempting it.

The narrator’s mother gives advice on her website for no other reason that it seems like a good idea, and somehow it works. Chudley’s obsession with the actress is stalker-scary, but funny. Like many stalkers he seems harmless at first. Our narrator joins a band with his students and actually makes a go of it. If the leader of your band is named Cuisinart, then funny is almost a guarantee. When our hero is told that his students finished in the top quarter of the state testing, he still feels like the axe might fall, but the school principal is happy. I earmarked this page because it’s one of the rare moments in the story when the narrator comes out of his fog and is recognized. When he wants a raise for his efforts the principal reminds him that he works for a public school, not a hedge fund. These firm but brief narratives move well together, and left me wanting more of this story. But questions remain. Will our hero win his wife back? Did Chudley have anything to do with the actress overdosing? Will the band get back together? The unnamed everyman at the center of this story could be you or me, or your famous neighbor, which is the most intriguing part of the story, and the most compelling.