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Thursday, November 01, 2001

Book Reviews

The Rich Part of a Greek American Life

The Rich Part of Life by Jim Kokoris. St. Martin’s Press, New York, 327 pages, 2001, $24.95.




The Rich Part of Life, the debut comic novel by Jim Kokoris, is about the consequences of winning the lottery, that rich part of life (both literally and figuratively) that will change and transform a Midwestern Greek American family in unimaginable and unpredictable fashion. The voice of the narrator, Teddy Pappas, takes us through the anxieties and questions that an 11-year-old boy faces while his life takes one unexpected turn after another. The novel opens with the family purchasing a winning lottery ticket exactly a year after the boy’s mother has died in a car accident. Right away, we are introduced to the rest of the family: Teddy’s younger brother, Tommy (often called the Nose Picker), and his father, Theo, a Civil War historian.

However, nothing at the beginning of the novel prepares the reader (or the family) for the variety of characters and episodes (often comitragic) that are going to be introduced gradually into Teddy’s world, a consequence of the family’s incredible “luck.” The $190 million lottery ticket brings together and introduces us to, among others: Teddy’s uncle, Frank, a B-movie producer writing a book about the human condition; Aunt Bess, who claims to communicate with dead relatives and celebrities; Mrs. Wilcott, a beautiful divorcee neighbor and TV host; Silvanius, a B-movie actor who ends up marrying Aunt Bess; and Maurice, a black former NFL player who has been hired as a bodyguard to protect the boys from Bobby Lee Anderson, an archetypal white-trash Southerner who turns out to be Teddy’s biological father.

Throughout the novel, we witness surreal and bizarre characters – who often seem straight out of daytime talk shows – and their interactions with Teddy’s life and family, as well as a number of episodes such as Teddy’s life in school and a reenactment of a famous Civil War battle. However, it is the relationship between Teddy and his father that really holds the story together and, I would add, maintains the reader’s interest. Theo’s character, a well-known Civil War historian, is a spectral figure who seems to be living in history, in the pages of his own books (not the best portrait of an academic). From the very beginning of the novel, the son describes the father as someone who has:

scanned distant horizons, probing the rebel lines, searching for a weakness, a direction to charge. Gettysburg, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Bull Run, Atlanta, Lookout Mountain, my father was a veteran of them all. He had hidden in the mud with Grant, stood his ground with Jackson, maneuvered brilliantly with Lee, burned cities with Sherman, and died many times with Lincoln.

It comes as no surprise to the reader that the father’s relationship with the rest of the family is literally nonexistent. He seems to be constantly outside of space and time, “trapped in a remote place” of silence and disorientation; “you act one hundred and fifty years old,” Teddy recalls his mother saying to his father. Theo and his wife had been in the process of divorcing when she was killed, and until that time he had had a merely decorative function in his children’s lives. The old Zenith television set (bought when Nixon was president), the lack of a VCR, the prehistoric Buick that the father drives, and the old colonial house in which the family lives, all serve as metaphors of the family living in another time.

Although Theo had seemed to be slowly reclaiming his role within the family after his wife’s death, it is winning the lottery that forces him to step out of his lethargic state and struggle with the present and everything that it represents. He has difficulty understanding and dealing with different aspects of contemporary life and society, such as the cult of celebrity. He constantly tries to protect his family from publicity, but that seems impossible.

One of the funniest and at the same time most ironic episodes (indicative of the time that we are living in) is the reenactment of a famous Civil War battle in Virginia in which the family is invited to participate because of Theo’s generous contribution to the Living History Society. On the one hand, the reenactment offers comic relief to the reader, but, on the other, it provides an ironic commentary on contemporary culture and its tendencies toward commercialization, sensationalism, historical inconsistency, and theatrics. The presence of an Abraham Lincoln impersonator (the president was nowhere near the actual battle) who is supposed to sing “Dixie,” the hiring of an African American actor to portray the personal slave of General Jackson (reluctantly played by Theo Pappas) since there are no African Americans in the Society, and the presence of a Starbucks tent on the battlefield, are paradigms that reinforce the relationship of contemporary culture to history and, further, are reminders that maybe our past and our prejudices are not yet behind us.

It is after this episode that the real troubles for the Pappas family begin. It is not a coincidence, I believe, that, after the iconic Civil War battle ends, a symbolic one begins between the Pappas family and Bobby Lee Anderson, Teddy’s biological father, as they assume stereotypical identities of the opposing sides. Until this moment, everything in the book has been told in a lighthearted tone, with a heavy dose of comedy or clownish elements. From this moment on, however, the tone becomes quiet serious, as we prepare for a more intimate reenactment of the Civil War.

As if we hadn’t already guessed, Robert (“Bobby”) Lee is a frightening character, named after a certain Confederate general. He hails from Memphis, Tennessee, drives a red pickup truck, likes his bourbon, and, of course, abused Teddy’s mother, who worked in a nightclub when she met Theo Pappas and fled her life. Upon learning about the lottery ticket, Bobby arrives on the scene to capitalize on the Pappas fortune, claiming that his son was taken away from him. Confronting him is a scholar of history whose only fault is that he is extremely naive and perhaps overly dedicated to his studies. As if we were not already convinced as to who is the best father for Teddy, Bobby Lee kidnaps the boy after he has lost his battle for legal custody (even the law is against him) and takes him on a frightening road trip. The story ends with Theo and Maurice confronting Bobby at the cemetery where Teddy’s mother is buried, and it is not hard to guess who is going to win this battle.

After I finished the novel, I had forgotten all about that “rich part of life” that the Pappas family was slowly discovering: the fortunes and misfortunes that a lottery ticket brings, the bonding between father and son, and, most of all, the innocence of a narrator who reminds us of, and brings us back to, something of our own childhood. I found myself, rather, tired and suspicious of the repetitive and quite simplistic and stereotypical portrayal of a Southern character. Should we assume that the author’s message is that history still haunts the present, destined to repeat itself, or that the fictive representation is after all a historical one? I think it takes more than a “Bobby Lee” to thematize the relationship between the realities of the Civil War and contemporary American culture and human existence. After all, one of the main characters in the novel has spent his entire life studying history, and understanding the peculiarities and contradictions of that war, as well as its historical reasons. Surely, an author who can create such a knowledgeable character should know better than to indulge in overly simplistic portrayals.

However, before making up your mind about the book, which I enjoyed up to a certain point, one might suggest an alternate reading. Maybe I have taken it too seriously, and the Pappas family story, with its bizarre and colorful characters and episodes, is not to be read too deeply after all, but rather as a potential script for one of Uncle Frank’s B-movies: a story that has no meaning at all outside its own framework, but is simply entertaining. The last lines of the book indeed blur any distinction between the two:

“A man’s life is made up of people,” [Sylvanius] began in his musical voice. “And if you are fortunate enough to find good people, people that you love, then keep them close. For together you will find things, together you will learn things. About each other and about yourself.” [...] “Those lines were from our last movie,” Uncle Frank said, looking proudly around the room. “From the last scene.”

Apostolos Vasilakis teaches literature and philosophy at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
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