THE ANTIQUES, by Kris D’Agostino. Scribner, 289 pp., $26.
Spend a week with the Westfalls, the feisty clan at the center of Kris D’Agostino’s second novel, “The Antiques,” and you may feel better about your own family. Thanks to the author’s ink-black sense of humor, these messed-up characters are also very funny.
As the week begins, father George is in his study, pondering the news that his cancer has metastasized and he may have only months to live. He gazes at a painting of two suited figures, viewed from the back, floating in a perfect blue sky with puffy clouds. It’s a so-called “lesser Magritte” he has owned for decades, last appraised at half a million dollars. He has left instructions for his family to sell it and split the profits.
George’s bleak prognosis is not the only cloud on the horizon. There is an actual killer storm making its way up the East Coast, scheduled to hit their town in upstate New York that night. Meanwhile, Shadow, the family’s 18-year-old border collie, is vomiting blood. As George’s wife, Ana, supervises storm preparations at the family’s antiques store, she is in despair. “When George and the dog were gone, what would she have? Nothing. No one.” Then she corrects herself — after all, one of her three adult children lives at home in her basement.
By the next morning, the town is flooded, George & Ana Westfall Antiques is a pile of broken glass and splinters, and George is dead. The dog, however, hangs on.
The oldest and most apparently successful Westfall sibling, Josef, has been ignoring his father’s voicemail messages and his mother’s texts for days, too busy making sleazy business deals and trolling “casual encounters” on Craiglist. With New York City blacked out by the storm, Josef crosses the Williamsburg Bridge on foot to see his young mistress. He might have continued to ignore the phone had the girl not begged him: “Can you answer this please? Your mother has called, like, eighty times.”
Clearly Josef’s ex-wife made an excellent decision when she threw him out. As the older of their two daughters puts it, “I hate this family.”
The middle sibling, Charlie, who lives on the West Coast, also receives word of her father’s death at an inopportune time. The Hollywood starlet she works for has just overdosed on pills (this is a regular thing) and her 5-year-old son has gotten expelled from school for putting a classmate in the hospital (also per usual). And there are not enough psychotropic medications in the world to make her husband, an obnoxious older Frenchman who is cheating on her, bearable.
So maybe the timing of her father’s death is more opportune than it seems. At least she gets to leave town.
The youngest Westfall, Armie, is quite a sad sack. After a brief, disastrous business career, he ended up back home, doing woodworking projects in the basement and mooning over Shadow’s dog walker, a girl he’s been infatuated with since high school. He goes to Mass with his mother just to give some structure to his empty days.
Once the siblings are assembled and the memorial service scheduled for the coming weekend, additional players flood the scene, including Josef’s ex and her new boyfriend, Charlie’s crazy starlet and awful husband, Armie’s dog walker and her mother, and more. D’Agostino’s specialty is rapid-fire banter, with conversational free-for-alls providing as many laughs as the increasing absurdity of the situation. Will they sell the painting? Will Armie finish his memorial table? Will Josef’s daughters get an autograph from their Hollywood idol?
Nothing works out, and it all works out — just as it should in a novel like this.