The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac by Kris D’Agostino reminded me how much I read books based on what I’ve heard about them, or if I’ve heard about them – it isn’t often that I just pick something up without reading the back, recognizing the author, or knowing something about the title. Not so with Family Almanac. It was just a random pick-up, and I’m so glad I found it.
The novel follows Calvin Moretti, as he ditches Boston University and returns home to Sleepy Hollow, New York, where he moves back in with his parents, his brother Chip, and his seventeen-year-old sister Elissa. Calvin reverts to his high school self, spending long hours in his bedroom, high and masturbating (“To take my mind off this horrifying scenario, I count the number of girls near my chair whom I would have sex with. I stop at eighteen, realizing my standards have fallen to fantastic new lows”), where he lies “on the floor listening to Appalachian folk music from the 1920s until I can’t keep my eyes open anymore, at which point I crawl into bed and drift off.”
His father, a pilot, has been diagnosed with cancer and is so obsessed with his mortality that he wanders around in his dressing gown with a gun sticking out of his pocket. His end-of-the-world provisions (the rice, guns, oil, and canned beans stacked in the garage) coupled with crippling medical bills are slowly bankrupting the family. Calvin might have had to move home, but there might not be a family home to live in for long. He saves as much money as he can (most of it is directed to student loans), looking at apartments and knowing that he can’t, at twenty-four-years-old, afford to move out on his own. Although he has a job working as a preschool teacher for developmentally challenged children, it does not pay enough for him to get by.
Calvin’s stuck, not just because of his financial situation, but his inability to make something happen. As he sits in his car “waiting at the lights on the way home, I look at myself in the rearview mirror. ‘Just do something.’” Moving back home places him in an ambivalent position, where he is no longer taken care of by his parents, but still relies on them for his basic needs. He doesn’t so much revert back to his teenage self but feels as if he has been given permission not to leave it: “I look at my reflection in the doors and am embarrassed that I still dress like a teenager: dirty jeans, T-shirt.” He is invited to the wedding of an old friend from school that he hasn’t talked to in years, and the event is one of the highlights of the novel (he brings his dad as his date, and his dad brings his gun). Calvin can’t shake free from the idea that he is doing something wrong with his life, and that everybody else has somehow magically figured it out: “I’m jealous even of my classmates who seem to have set up miserable lives for themselves. At least they have lives. I’m convinced of this. Any life is better than aimlessness.”
D’Agostino narrates in a detached, but reflective way, and sentences end almost lyrically, transforming characters’ words from the mundane to the poetic:
“Dad passed his stress test,” Elissa says.
“I know, I say. “He’s downstairs crying about it right now.”
The weeks tumble by. I do not get in their way.
“I’ll drive back,” I say. “Jesus.”
“Watch it,” my grandmother says. “He hears you.”
“Do you want to know the sex?” he asks. We look at Elissa.
“Let’s be surprised,” she says.
Memory entangles with the present situation: Chip, helping to support the family by paying the mortgage; Calvin, feeling a responsibility to help out, but never quite putting a plan into action; and Elissa, her own teen pregnancy complicating the tenuous family situation. Calvin can’t find a present, mostly because returning home forces him to live in a nebulous shadow of the past. Memory is everywhere, and he spends a considerable time writing in his own journal, if not changing the situation, at least trying to understand it:
“When I was thirteen, I played a year of Little League baseball. Mostly as an unspoken favor to my father. They stuck me in right field, the only position where I might possibly avoid all contact with the ball. I batted seventh in the order. Once, during a game toward the end of the season, a fastball hit me square in the nose, knocking the plastic helmet off my head and splaying me out in the dirt. When I came to, I could taste blood in my mouth. My father was squatting over me, along with Coach Ruggiero and half the team. He put his hand under my head, told me not to move. I didn’t want to get up. I would’ve stayed there forever. I have never felt as safe as I did lying there with a broken nose.”
D’Agostino tackles that current economic clime, where return home is a narrative of post adolescence. The writing is in the vein of Dave Eggers and Jeffrey Eugenides, and shows Cal's inability to change the stagnant situation of his life.