This is what Wally Lamb wanted to do with his novel "She's Come Undone" (1992)--write a bildungsroman about a sympathetic loser with a crazy family and a unique voice whose story, set over a span of decades, offers a glimpse of America's recent past. The difference is, Lamb almost pulled it off with a really good book. Evison not only pulls it off, but hits it out of the park with a great book--part "Catcher in the Rye," part "Lolita," part "Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius."
William Miller, his protagonist, is a wimpy vegetarian in a family of hulking, meat-eating bodybuilders. His step-sister, Lulu, is his lone comrade, and soon becomes the love of Will's life, the center of everything for him. Much of the novel dwells on what happens when his center abruptly abandons him, leaving him with a gaping hole to fill with something--Fatburgers, radio, Hot Dog Heaven, disastrous would-be one-night stands, even Kierkegaard. This idea of emptiness permeates the novel. " 'I feel like a bagel,' " one of Will's former teachers confides to him. " 'Like there's a hole in the center of me.' " Will's narrated response is succinct: "I lived that feeling for most of my life, but I didn't say so. There were times when I felt like the hole and not the bagel, but I didn't tell him that either."
Serious stuff, true. But rather than devolve into a whining diatribe, like a third-rate Holden Caulfield, "All About Lulu" is both very funny and very honest. Evison takes William, an outcast within his own family, and reveals him with all his flaws and pettiness as well as with his capacity to love and grow and learn. Nicely tied-up happy endings aren't plentiful in this novel. "No pain, no gain" is the Miller family motto, and William faces plenty of pain and loss, but all against a hazy background of hope against all odds. While William is by far the most engaging character, the supporting cast is solid--Big Bill, William's bodybuilding father; Eugene Gobernecki, ex-Soviet emigre and fierce capitalist; Troy, William's best friend and romantic rival; and, of course, Lulu, who is both stepsister and siren to William and is wisely kept off-stage for much of the novel by Evison. Her appearances are startling and convincing, and even when she is gone, Will--and by extension, the reader--basks in her afterglow. Along the way Will shows us life in America from the '60s to the '90s, from the Summer of Love to the Reagan Revolution and the grunge movement in Seattle. There's even a hilarious cameo appearance by a certain former bodybuilder turned movie star.
For everyone who's had to suffer unrequited or even semi-requited love, and that covers most people on the planet, "All About Lulu" is a must.