It’s always fun to say you have a friend “with a book out.” It’s even more fun when the book is as good as this one is. Helping Howard is a clever, entertaining and—dare I say—disruptive novel by Sally Schloss.
Sally and I crossed paths decades ago through the Nashville Writers’ Alliance, the esteemed group that has been nurturing authors of fiction and nonfiction since the 1970s, many of whom have gone on, like Sally, to be happily published.
Challenging the form
With Helping Howard, Sally does more than get a book published. She challenges the traditional form of the novel—and does so quite winningly.
She gives voice to the novel’s author, who steps in occasionally to guide protagonist Howard Blackman, a white, Jewish musician from Brooklyn, as he navigates romance, marriage, fatherhood, infidelity (his wife’s and his own), illness and the challenges of getting older.
One such conversation opens the novel, when the author coaxes Howard to get out of bed. “I need you to start my novel,” she says. “Will I fall in love today?” Howard asks. The answer: “Maybe. I don’t know yet.” (He does.)
Breaking the fourth wall
This metafiction technique, where the fourth wall or “spell” of the story is periodically broken by the author’s entry, could become tiresome in less capable hands, but Sally uses it judiciously.
What helps is that the story of Howard has its own energy to propel us along as he seeks love and respect for “getting old and being cranky about it,” even at the ripe young age of 51.
Sally’s other major characters—Howard’s bisexual wife, T.J., and adventurous daughter, Sinclair—are equal parts engaging and unsettling. There’s rich chemistry, tension and humor here that keep us reading. And Howard is a likeable, flawed and funny protagonist.
Howard’s conversations with the author form a structure for the story and give it direction. For example, the author advises Howard to take a trip to Nashville with his lover, Solange, and afterward, to go home to his family.
The author adds comic relief, too. In one of my favorite scenes, the author says, “You can talk to me, Howard. We’re on the same page.” (Isn’t that great?!) The line comes after she shares information with Howard about T.J. that he is not supposed to know. How does he move forward now, knowing what he knows? “You go back to being a character in the book,” says the author.
The ‘Author’ a character, too
I understood about halfway through Helping Howard that the author in the story is a fictional construct, not necessarily Sally’s direct reflection.
“People who know me find the Author’s voice on the page to be mine,” Sally told me. But she adds, “I play with that idea of me, not me. But truly in some sense, all characters are avatars of the authors when writing psychological fiction.”
What’s undeniably Sally, though, is the wisdom that shines through in the book. For example, she has T.J., the perennial troublemaker in the piece, ask her daughter’s soon-to-be-wife, Nina, if she is nervous before the wedding ceremony.
Anyone who has ever been asked that question before a major life event knows that it is not a good one. At best, it’s kind of clueless (of course you’re nervous!); at worst, it’s not very nice, inspiring doubt, suggesting that one’s outward calm is hopelessly transparent. And so it’s perfectly fitting that the line goes to T.J., not to one of Schloss’ kinder, gentler characters.
A novel immortality
At the book’s satisfying conclusion, Howard asks the author what the future holds for him. “Every time someone reads this book, you get out of bed and come alive,” she answers. “I relive this over and over again?” he asks.
I won’t be a spoiler and tell whether this kind of immortality is good news or bad to Howard’s ears. You’ll just have to read this fresh, beautiful novel to find out.
3 thoughts on “A Friend of Mine Has a Book Out and It’s Good”
Great review, Mike! I loved “Helping Howard,” as well.
Thanks, Alana. You might be next! 🙂
I hope so!