The Young Widower’s Handbook
By Tom McAllister
Algonquin Books, February 2017]
288 pages, $25.95
Reviewed by Alyssa Gillon
Tom McAllister’s debut novel The Young Widower’s Handbook encourages us to empathize with protagonist Hunter as he hits the road for a winding road trip across the USA with his recently-deceased young wife’s ashes riding shotgun. This adventure follows Hunter’s movement through his various states of grief, and we spend two months with wisecracking Hunter and the characters he meets along the way, each of whom contribute to Hunter’s emotional journey. McAllister explores Hunter and Kait’s relationship, its inequalities and shortcomings, and overall he does a wonderful job developing compelling characters in a believable situation.
From immediate aftermath to negotiating tragedy within life’s chaos, McAllister’s novel is a study in contemporary death in America. The opening chapters of the novel are like a “What to Expect” handbook—McAllister covers all of the universal and minute details we have to deal with when someone dies, like grieving “while little nieces and nephews and cousins scramble underfoot and throw chunks of fruit at one another.” At first, Hunter tries to deflect the tragedy using the dark humor that got him through life’s problems before his wife died. Those tactics fail, and we learn to expect Hunter’s quirky take and dark sense of humor as his sole coping mechanism. We also learn that he adores Kait, feels that he did not deserve to be her husband, and was emotionally and financially dependent on her.
A wonderfully-written scene where Hunter attempts to communicate with Kait through seance is my favorite moment of the novel. McAllister’s imagery is haunting and beautiful, and this scene solidifies Hunter’s desperation with magical thinking. The scene hit the right tone of sadness—the terrible and heavy told in images of “thousands of ghosts in his home, each one a vision of Kait…some are cooking and some are sleeping and some are dancing and some are hanging pictures…Kait in the wallpaper and bubbling in the water supply and buzzing in the wiring in the walls.” From this, I drew a pearl of pathos as I left with Hunter on his voyage West.
The novel alternates chapters of close third and second person narration. While reading unlikeable narrators is interesting in first or third person, Hunter’s unlikability became a problem for me during the second-person chapters. I tried to stick with him, grasping at the pearl, judging myself for judging Hunter’s choices harshly. But sticking with Hunter was uncomfortable like wearing a mask slick with someone else’s grease. Like: Your wife has died and you are reacting by posting photos of her ashes on Facebook and “you lost her [ashes] and possibly had sex with some girl who was on the verge of getting married.” I kept thinking no, no, no, I wouldn’t do that if my husband died! The second person narration makes things super personal—I started thinking about my boyfriend dying and how I would do things so differently than Hunter. The novel screams “This could happen to you–your loved one could be gone in an instant!” While McAllister successfully strikes an emotional chord, maybe even wails on it, the fragility of human life is not a new reminder, and I think the novel could have accomplished its goal with more subtlety.
Throughout his trip, Hunter allows his sadness to come out in the form of storytelling. A slow emotional crack is consistent with Hunter’s character—his greenness in dealing with trauma is the driving narrative force. Productive coping mechanisms don’t come easily, but once flowing, Hunter’s healing snowballs. Finally sharing his wife’s story, spreading her ashes, facing his demons, and cleaning his house: these things start to heal Hunter. Though he’s been hearing this advice for months, he can only learn on his own.
Sadness is a pearl*, is an emotion many gravitate towards and savor in art. We welcome art to hurt us because ultimately that sadness is not ours to carry. We walk away from the movie or put the book down having gained a fresh perspective and afterglow of appreciation. The grief in Handbook doesn’t grant readers much observational distance, and it reaches deep. While moments of dark humor and weirdness alleviate the mood, overall the driving force of Handbook is Hunter’s grief and self-guided journey. We are along for the ride with a character who doesn’t like himself, who is facing dependance on someone who is no longer there, who needs to wallow in self-destruction. While it is not necessarily a joyride, it is darkly funny and engaging.
For readers who want to experience a tumultuous adventure through deep grief, wrestle through acceptance, and experience its catharsis, Handbook absolutely delivers. Hunter’s choices might not reflect what we think we would do in his circumstances, but we feel every bump on these misadventures. McAllister prods the protective “It could never happen to me” barrier and strips away the distance between reader and narrator. McAllister has given the reader tons of multifaceted emotional baggage to unpack. While you hold up and sniff Hunter’s dirty laundry, you might recognize a few shirts of your own.
*”Sadness is a pearl” is a Lykke Li lyric