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February 24, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Books | February 24, 2009 |

At the turn of the century, the American Library Association came up with a list of the Top 100 Books of the 20th Century, which prompted me for a short while to tear through as many of them as I could, just so I could say I’d read them. I skipped Ulysses and most of the Toni Morrison and Evelyn Waugh, but I ultimately ended up reading about 75 of those 100. And then I quit reading the classics. With very few exceptions (mostly Anne Tyler and older Phillip Roth), I haven’t read much over the last decade that was older than a year or two past its release date. I turned mostly to genre books, slacker fiction, and memoirs. Now, with the exception of Jonathan Franzen and an ever-shrinking smattering of others, I’ve mostly forgotten what it felt like to read great literature. Books where the story takes a backseat to the dazzling prose, perfect metaphors, rich and beautiful extended passages, fully developed characters and smart literary allusions.

Scott Muskin’s The Annunciations of Hank Meyerson, Mama’s Boy and Scholar — winner of the 2007 Parthenon Prize for Fiction — reminded me again just how rewarding dense, thoughtful, vibrant prose can be. A real motherfucking writer can simply examine a man’s relationships with those around him; peel back all the layers; reveal the psychic wounds underneath; the hereditary, the psychological, and the philosophical motivations that drive him; and gloriously wrap it around a substantive narrative. And he can move you to tears in doing so. Scott Muskin is a real motherfucking writer. He doesn’t need a superhero, a gimmick, or a mystery to drive his story. The Annunciations of Hank Meyerson is the kind of book you can appreciate because it’s brilliantly written, and because you want to bathe in his prose, even if it never takes you downstream.

Fortunately, Muskin doesn’t just tell a story well, he’s got a great story to tell. Hank Meyerson is the chubby introspective type — a guy with a lot of higher education but no ambition. He’s your typical, Jewish, self-loathing slacker anti-hero doormat. He’s been working on a bathroom remodeling project for months with very little progress. He’s mostly unemployed. And he’s so self-involved that his attention seeking-wife eventually seeks that attention outside of the marriage. The affair drives the insecure Hank even further into his head.

Meanwhile, Hank is also in love with his brother’s wife, June. He resents his brother, a prodigal son / toy maker, because life seems to come so easily to him, while Hank refuses to go to life, aimlessly waiting for it to happen to him. When it finally does, he runs, fleeing to Montana to add some more flab, drink himself silly, and wallow in self-pity. He also does an inordinate amount of kibitzing, waiting around for his life to fix itself and ruminating on Emily Dickinson, the holocaust, and copy-editing, among many other things. Indeed, he goes to Montana to find himself, but finds that his self is still back in Minneapolis with his wife, his brother, and his sister-in-law, a realization he comes to, perhaps, too late.

Annunciations is, ostensibly, a dark relationship comedy, one that ultimately takes a turn for the ugly. It is smart, it is witty, and it is droll. But it is also painfully insightful and, ultimately, bittersweet. Given how closely the author bio lines up with the character and setting in the book, it’s hard not to think it’s also a very personal book. It certainly feels like one, a book with more brilliance on a single page than the entirety of Stephenie Meyer’s oeuvre. It takes a writer as unusually gifted as Muskin to naturally and successfully steer an intelligently light-hearted novel into the darker, more tragic territory — this is whiplash poignancy at its best, folks. Annunciations is not a page-turner (at least until the final act); it’s a book you want to stew in and appreciate, a book you need to put down occasionally just to digest what you’ve read. It’s an extraordinary novel, and Muskin is an extraordinary novelist.

I recommend anyone with a taste for smart novels to pick it up.

Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. You can email him or leave a comment below.

The Annunciations of Hank Meyerson by Scott Muskin / Dustin Rowles

Books | February 24, 2009 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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