educator, writer, speaker, devoted family man, amateur philosopher, chess enthusiast, basketball junkie, connoisseur of fine hip hop, and purveyor of wit and wisdom
“When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn’t kill her himself. He dreamed convenient acts of God.”
These are the first lines of the wildly inventive and unnerving debut novel Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross. (These lines are also repeated verbatim midway through the novel in a clever way.) I know the book first hit the stands two years ago, but I found it last year and then procrastinated with getting my hands on it for another year. Fourteen months ago, when I chose to read a novel per month for my 40 by 40 list, Mr. Peanut was the only novel that I knew for certain would be on my reading list. All the other novels I read in the past several months were either suggestions from friends or books I came across along the way. There was a New York Times book review (this one HERE) that sold me on Mr. Peanut immediately.
So, Mr. Peanut was the novel I read for September. I finished it in about seven days.
All first novels are somewhat autobiographical. For that reason, it surprised me to think that a writer would be so bold as to decide that his debut novel should be about a man fantasizing about his wife’s death. And it was unsettling to know how much I was looking forward to reading it. I asked myself such questions as What does it say about me that this novel intrigued me? Should I even tell other people that I was reading this book? Does reading the book say something about the state of my own marriage or my thoughts about marriage in general? Am I reading too much into my reading this novel?
Recently (on August 28), my wife and I celebrated our 13th anniversary. A couple days later when I began reading Mr. Peanut, I learned that David Pepin (the main character) and his wife were also in their 13th year of marriage. Of course, that got me reading deeply into what was going on with Mr. and Mrs. Pepin to see if I could glean any insight from their relationship.
I’m glad I did read carefully because what Adam Ross created was a truly great novel.
So here’s what the story’s about…
At the start of the novel, David Pepin is arrested for the murder of his wife, Alice. It’s a pretty shocking murder scene, and…the murder weapon? Peanuts. Everyone knew that Alice was deathly allergic to peanuts (among other foods), and the police find her body on the floor dead from eating a large amount of peanuts. Why do the police suspect David? Well, there were definite signs of a struggle and there was evidence of David’s fingers deep inside her mouth, presumably (as conjectured by detectives) to stuff the peanuts down her throat while Alice tried desperately to fight him off. David’s claim is that he is completely innocent and that Alice used the peanuts to commit suicide. He claimed to have come home, walked into the kitchen, and found his wife just sitting at the table waiting with a plate of peanuts in front of her. David claimed that, because of his wife’s bouts with depression, along with a lot of recent strange behavior, Alice wanted to kill herself…the physical struggle in the kitchen was really due to David trying to save Alice by trying desperately to get peanuts out of her mouth.
What follows is one of the wildest novels you’ll read.
Both detectives on David Pepin’s case have troubled marriages, and the author uses the detectives’ stories to shed more light on what it takes to endure/suffer long marriages. The first detective is Ward Hastroll who has to decide how to handle his wife’s decision to never leave her bed. Ever. His wife offers no explanation for the sudden strange behavior, and after several months he simply can’t take any more.
The other detective on the Pepin case is Sam Sheppard. THE real life actual Sam Sheppard who was convicted in the 1950s for killing his wife. THE Sam Sheppard who the TV show The Fugitive was loosely based on. The real Sheppard died over 4 decades ago, but even if he lived, he would be almost 89 years old today. For the story Mr. Peanut, the reader must suspend that bit of reality to enjoy the novel. The reason is because Sam Sheppard’s presence in the story is necessary for what Adam Ross attempts to say about marriage.
And what is it, exactly, that Ross is trying to say about marriage? At the heart of the novel (almost the dead center of the novel) a character says that “perhaps it’s simply the dual nature of marriage, the proximity of violence and love.” For most of us, murder will never be a part of our lives and we will never intentionally harm our spouses. HOWEVER, I do think that the monotony of marriage’s routines will wear on people heavily enough to fantasize escapes.
For example, in our house, my favorite things to watch on TV are sports and I loved playing basketball on weekends. These are escapes in small doses, places were men could mentally and physically focus on something other than home, where women just didn’t exist for a few hours. On the other hand, my wife’s favorite things to watch on TV are those true crime TV shows like “Snapped” and “Who the Bleep Did I Marry” and “Deadly Women” and “Deadly Affairs” and “Behind Mansion Walls” and other “dramatic re-enactment of true crime” shows where spouses are killing each other. As spouses, we need these things, and we actually need our spouses to need these things. My wife needs me to lose myself in front of a football game so I won’t brood over marriage. And I need my wife to watch “Snapped” so she won’t kill me.
Adam Ross is amazing at capturing the doldrums of long marriages. Scenes are described that only a veteran married couple could relate to, and lines are written that can only be spoken by a veteran spouse. After finishing the novel, I was really interested in what others had to say. There are a lot of people (critics and bloggers alike) who did not like Mr. Peanut. The criticisms most often cited were:
Screw critics. I thought this was probably one of the most carefully crafted, meticulously constructed books I’ve read of any type (fiction or nonfiction). True, there is SO much happening in this story that one does wonder how Ross fit everything into only one book. And true, there are times it could get difficult to read. And true, there are even sections of the book that I would have cut entirely. BUT you know, the same could be said of a lot of beautiful things that are difficult to get through…trigonometry, the Bible, marriage.
I think that is part of the author’s point. When a husband and wife BOTH decide that a marriage is worth saving, there is a big ol’ pasture of peace after conquering what previously looked like insurmountable obstacles. A lot of you young folk will see what I’m talking about when you’ve been married for as long as I have (13 years…which is an eternity here in the west coast of the U.S. with drive-thru weddings and a 75% California divorce rate).
I feel like I’m rambling so I’ll wrap it up here. I’ve learned that making marriage work has nothing to do with compatibility…what matters most is what spouses do with the incompatibility. We can’t avoid the monotony, the idiosyncrasies, and the flat out long boring stretches of being married forever. The important thing is having strategies in place to handle them when they arrive.
P.S. — There is a really good interview with the author Adam Ross that highlights some of the motivations for creating Mr. Peanut. He talks about the endorsement by Stephen King, the real life incident in his family that was the inspiration for the Pepin murder, the many references to Hitchcock throughout the story, and he answers the question everyone asks him: What does your wife think about the novel? But WARNING: there are lots of spoilers in this article. To read it click HERE.