VERY NICE, by Marcy Dermansky. Alfred A. Knopf, 304 pp., $25.95.
I confess myself to be a Marcy Dermansky-ite, having been won over by her hilariously deadpan tone and cool indifference to conventional morality with her 2005 debut, "Twins." With "Bad Marie" and "The Red Car," she just got better and better. Is "Very Nice," as its blurb proclaims, her best yet?
The curtain opens on Rachel Klein, a college student from Connecticut. "I didn't think, the day I kissed my professor for the first time, that he would kiss me back," she tells us. In fact, he does. And then some. A little later, he asks her if she will take care of his apricot standard poodle while he goes home to Pakistan to visit his dying grandmother.
The second chapter is narrated by Rachel's mother, Becca. "Rachel came home for her summer break with a dog," she reports, and since she has just put her own beloved standard poodle to sleep, she's not quite sure how she feels about this. One thing she knows: There's no chance Rachel will actually be taking care of the dog herself. There's something unnerving about her daughter, she reports, though "I knew, intellectually, my teenage daughter was not a psychopath." Becca's husband Jonathan has left her for an airline pilot named Mandy; maybe a new dog is just the thing, after all.
Next chapter, we hear from Zahid Azzam ("the name of either a superhero or a terrorist", the Pakistani prof. He is hanging out with his subletter, a nearly six-foot tall biracial lesbian financial analyst named Khloe. Khloe is the identical twin sister of his best friend Kristi, a writer. He loves hanging out with lesbians, he explains, because since his book came out all the women are after him, and he's already suffered the consequences of giving his now-ex-fiancée an STD.
Up next is Khloe, a few weeks later. Zahid has returned to the United States early because his grandmother died as soon as he got to Pakistan, and now he has nowhere to live and really misses his dog. Guess where he's going?
Connecticut will never be the same.
In an interview, Dermansky has explained that none of this madcap soap opera was planned. She rotated the microphone around her cast of characters as if they were playing a party game, taking turns to tell what crazy thing happens next. The fact that they all sound like Marcy Dermansky seems like part of the joke. And though it's mostly Rachel and Becca's story, we will hear also from faithless husband Jonathan, and Khloe will fill in a lot of interesting backstory on her award-winning writer sister.
In a section of the book sure to amuse Dermansky's many writer fans, Zahid heads out to Kristi's illustrious Midwestern MFA program, where she's scored him a job interview. In Iowa, "I was back, I was Zahid Azzam, once again. I went to a party and I only drank four glasses of wine. … I made intelligent comments about the students' stories, stories I had quickly scanned on the airplane before falling asleep." Even luckier for them, he reveals his aesthetic, what has been called "the Azzam factor." He's bringing back adverbs.
Is "Very Nice" Dermansky's best yet? I'm still reserving that honor for "The Red Car." But if you are looking for a smart yet wacky summer diversion, a sendup of PC pretensions, a book that will make you both laugh and gasp out loud, dive between the enticing aqua covers of "Very Nice." Then swim on into the backlist.