Before I tell you how I fell for John Dufresne's novel, Love Warps the Mind a Little, let me list a few things about it that would normally have led me to toss it aside — including its just-too-clever title.
First: Lafayette Proulx, the smart-ass narrator, whose cutesy French name shadows that of Dufresne. No surprise, Laf is a fiction writer. Call me territorial or narcissistic, but I avoid novels about people who share my vocation.
Laf cheats, lies and freeloads off the women who suffer his philandering ways. He has an absurdly ill-mannered dog and hangs around with a virtual circus of recidivist criminals, New Age psychics, Christian fundamentalists and fast-food cooks.
I usually avoid circus novels, too.
So why did I read it? Because it was pressed into my hands by Joe DeSalvo of Faulkner House Books, located on Pirate's Alley in New Orleans. The best booksellers are like trustworthy pushers: Whatever they're dealing, you take it.
This book is not luminous or sweeping, poignant or grand. Laf turns out to be a Cat in the Hat kind of hero, the perceptive fool who lurks on the sidelines while furniture flies, men misbehave and women weep. He riffs brilliantly on childhood, parenthood, desire, cancer, marriage counseling, religious faith, the very nature of time. Claiming that he'd "rather be on fire than be ordinary," he cannot see that if all he does is write about life, then life will pass him by. He knows a lot about love and death, except this: that he is not immune to either.
Rarely have I laughed so often while reading a book or, coming to the end, cried so hard. Love Warps the Mind a Little is a masterpiece of the genre that writers call the "funny-sad novel," where humor both defies and gives shape to grief. It is rich entertainment, sheer lunacy, moonshine for the wounded heart.
All the best novels are about one thing: how we go on. The characters must survive the fallout of their own cowardice, folly, denial or misguided passion. They squander what matters most, and still they pick up the pieces. I've been there and, clearly, so has John Dufresne.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.